Are English Departments Killing the Humanities?

Pharos_of_AlexandriaFeisal G. Mohamed in Dissent:

The focus of this post is not the thousand-and-one times told tale of how the corporatization of the university and state divestment from higher education has had a particularly disastrous impact upon humanities departments. There are several informed and important books on those economic realities, of which Stanley Fish provides a partial bibliography in a recent blog post and David A. Bell provides a review essay in the Fall 2010 print issue of Dissent. We can treat these realities as facts to be taken for granted. But even as we strain against such pressures, we can engage in difficult self-scrutiny. We might wonder if there are conditions of intellectual deprivation for which the institutional structures governing the humanities are partly to blame. And any such consideration must look squarely at that elephant in the olive grove, the English department, and ask if it does more harm than good.

This upstart institution has had a brief if also voracious life. Professorships of English language and literature began to appear in earnest in the late nineteenth century, spurred by an unlikely and uneasy alliance between philological study and the kind of civilizing errand of literature one might associate with Matthew Arnold. For Arnoldians, literature would play the cultural role once occupied by religion, with beauty civilizing the modern individual. Such views reached their climax in the era of the Second World War, with the cultural mobilization against fascism that made liberal values seem all the more worth cultivating in their fragility.