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Column: How to make English departments ‘relevant again’

For years, majoring in English was “a serious endeavor masquerading as a frivolous one.”

Yet, the tables have turned with the study of English becoming “an increasingly frivolous endeavor masquerading as a serious one.”

That’s the argument Dr. Duke Pesta, a professor of English in the University of Wisconsin system and host of The College Fix’s Campus Roundup, makes in a column published this week by the Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

In his column, Pesta argues English departments have strayed away from their original mission and are in need of reform.

From the column:

English departments no longer view our literary heritage as necessary for maintaining a shared set of cultural values. Moral truths and objective beauties are deconstructed away, and postmodern approaches to language and text stress instead political ideology, ethical relativism, and hostility to aesthetics, authorial intent, and the ability of language to convey meaning.

To once again make studying English a “serious endeavor,” Pesta offers three suggestions for English departments to undertake. His first recommendation calls on professors to “teach classic books and authors” and to bring the “world’s best books” and the “Western canon” back into their classrooms:

The Western canon always sought the best ideas expressed in the best ways. Literature programs evolved to preserve and expand the canon, not jettison it for the self-servingly political. Reading Homer, Dante, and Milton is not Eurocentric colonization, as some campus radicals insist, but an opportunity to encounter profound voices that coexist noisily and who represent more genuine cultural difference than can be found in the most divergent experiences of minority cultures in America today. To appreciate this diversity of ideas requires significant study and context.

Pesta also recommends that English classes “focus on ideas, not ideologies,” writing that teachers should not teach texts through so-called “lenses” that inject progressive ideology and social justice frameworks into the classroom.

“The classics only matter if we give them fair hearing. Across English departments, postmodern reading strategies drown out or shout down original texts and voices, reducing them to strawmen and co-opting them to speak the language of progressivism,” Pesta writes.

Lastly, Pesta asserts that English departments can draw students back to their classes if they “reclaim truth, beauty, and morality.” Doing so will require that professors ditch the politicization of the English curriculum, which Pesta says has limited student inquiry.

“The most frustrating aspect of this social justice approach to literature is the unwillingness to allow students to discover values for themselves. Rather than permit direct engagement with literary masterpieces, student inquiry is mediated and framed by a restrictive set of ideological assumptions that close off dialogue in favor of dialectic, in ways that are unjust and antisocial,” he writes.

Read the entire column.

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