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Stop Teaching English Lit.

By Kelly A. E. mason

HARVARD University fancies itself The Premier University of the West. It is the vanguard of Classical, European and American thought, jealous guardian of its own cultural capital. By virtue of its history, Harvard has become the avatar of the American intellectual tradition. President Derek C. Bok frequently speaks in the most effusive terms on the responsibility of the education system to the American citizenry to a global community.

But the first responsibility of the university is unmistakably to Americans. Even Harvard's Department of English and American Literature and Language (department of literature written in English), recognizes its nationalist responsibilities in its nomenclature. But that recognition is nominal, for a disparate amount of its resources and its esteem lies in the study of British literature.

The list of charges against the English department is long. One valid complaint is the department's disregard of the literature of minorities and colonized peoples. But the argument for increased representation of these literatures in the canon is complicated, and detracts from the more immediate question of the fate of American literature in academia. With the nearly catastrophic state of secondary education in America, our people are woefully ignorant of the shape of their own culture. A culture that cannot assume responsibility for itself certainly cannot assume responsibility for another. A country that cannot distinguish its intellectual history from its former motherland cannot claim adherence to its revolutionary ideals.

A QUICK perusal of Harvard's course catalogue will bear out the Anglo-American imbalance. This year, the English department offered 30 courses that could be classified as teaching mainly British literature, or mainly American literature. Of those 30 courses, only nine focus on American literature.

But the bias extends even beyond options to requirements. All undergraduate English concentrators are required to take English 10, "Major British Writers," and a semester course in Shakespeare. The one pre-1800 literature course required of non-honors concentrators and the two required of honors concentrators focus de facto on British literature. This structure is not conducive to doing coursework in American literature--after honors concentrators take their foreign literature requirement and five semesters of tutorial, there is not enough latitude in their schedules to devote a year to the American literature survey class, English 70. The enrollment in English 70 is always considerably lower than the enrollment in English 10 partly because English 70 can only be taken as a full course, while the required English 10 can be taken as two half-courses.

The undergraduate English concentrator is mired in requirements. The English department publishes a book--not a pamphlet, but a book--of required reading for honors concentrators. This book is organized chronologically into eight chapters, four of which focus exclusively on British literature, one of which focuses exclusively on American. Undergraduates are asked to do work in five different periods, and tested on subdivisions of three in their senior general examinations. It is entirely possible, then, that a Harvard student could graduate with distinction with a degree in English and American Literature and Language having done absolutely no coursework in American literature.

It is unconscionable that the same department that will not let its students graduate without some exposure to literature in a foreign language would let a student graduate having never been exposed to American works such as Moby Dick, Walden, My Antonia, or The Invisible Man. That literate, college-educated Americans could be ignorant of the shape and history of their own literature is a national embarrassment.

The arguments the department could profer for this Anglophilic bias are rooted in the classical tradition. Undoubtedly, there is a greater tradition of British literature. British works roughly date from the 14th century. Scholars might argue that a truly American voice does not emerge until the latter half of the 18th, or early 19th century.

But the scholastic disregard of our young tradition is itself reason enough to see that tradition prized, and that it grows. If American universities do not recognize and explore the contributions American have made to English literature, which universities will? A country can not have a sense of national identity when it does not have its own unique body of literature.

The department's least convincing argument supporting the greater emphasis on British literature states simply that it is of a higher quality. Such a position would probably be thrown out on a campus where the British scholars did not so overwhelmingly outnumber their American counterparts, but to pretend that literature is evaluated or prized by its "artistic value" alone is smug and ignorant. Shelley called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Literature establishes a dialogue of ideas, and is therefore an inherently political act. Writers frequently use whatever they consider as the political, social, or structural subtext of their contemporaries' works either as touchstones or models for their own representations of society.

Many an undergraduate fantisizes about following in the footsteps of Thoreau, Emerson, Eliot, Updike and other Havardian authors, but they are in effect robbed of the opportunity to discuss, in an academic setting, the works of the very predecessors they hope to emulate. Graduating American "intellectuals" who have not debated the relative merits of their own literature is problematic at best. The literature they produce is in danger of being redundant and lifeless, steeped in a foreign tradition and removed from the reality of national life.

The most appealing argument the department could make for the relative strength of its British scholarship is that it is impossible to understand the American literary tradition without first understanding its British precursor. This assertion is legitimate, but it does not excuse the weakness of the American curriculum here. An undergraduate English concentrator rarely has the opportunity to use British literature as a window on American literaure, because he or she rarely has the opportunity to study American literature at all.

The Harvard English department is still beset by a plague that infested the "academic" and "classical" traditions in the wake of the Industrial Revolution: Anglophilia as an easy measure of haute couture. Nineteenth-century old-world wealthy intellectuals differentiated themselves from nouveau riche with cultural Euro-centric distinctions; these distinctions were a strong reaction to an increasingly democratic America.

Truly exciting things continue to happen in American literature. Our literature has become more representative of an increasingly complex and pluralistic society, both in narrative and in authorship. In asserting and defending the ridiculous, inherent superiority of British literature, the English department denies its responsibility both to its American students and to the America depicted in that literature.

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