A long time ago I decided against a career in academia. It was one of the few major life decisions I got right.
… pluralism in academic settings rarely lasts for long. There has to be a truth at the end of the day, even if it’s the “truth” of an artificial academic consensus. When theory killed literary truth, it doomed the discipline. Into this vacuum, identity professors in English departments poured ersatz truths about race and sex, which have failed to shore it up. At the time I was baffled at this suicidal trend, but in retrospect I can see that it was only natural that identity politics should have ascended so quickly in the nineties. Its urgent claims gave English a moral meaning that theory had undermined. When literature itself no longer sparked the heat of conviction that divided Bloom and Hirsch in the early sixties, the discipline had to find another source of energy. Identity critics had the answer. They weren’t decadent—they were impassioned. By 1992, “post-structuralism” had a stale tang, but gender and queer sounded fresh and potent. A theory panel at the MLA Convention on “Shelley and the Sign” was ho-hum, but “Queer Shakespeare” down the hall was packed.
High seriousness was restored, but literature was the victim. It wasn’t Shakespeare that drew the crowd, but queerness: Lear was a pretext. Literature had become a booster rocket, at best, one that you jettison when you reach the orbit of political relevance. The institutional effects are plain to see at this late date. Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift—they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.