The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline

Robert Scholes
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998
192 pp., $20.00 hc

Ken Egan, Jr.
Rocky Mountain College

Once upon a time, colleges taught Rhetoric and Belles Lettres as a common project, producing eloquent professionals who knew the beauty of language. When English literature displaced rhetoric and the classics in the curriculum, professors still held to a notion of the ethical, even religious significance of the written text. But sometime around World War II, English professors opted for a new identity, a new position: the high priests of culture, hovering over semi-sacred texts with ambiguous (that is, inscrutable) meanings. The English profession has yet to recover. Deconstructionists are New Critics by another name: they dwell in a misty shadow world of elusive meanings, apart, alone, irrelevant. And so we have fallen on hard times; we no longer like ourselves. Why? Because we are marginalized, irrelevant prevaricators. What we need now is truth, not truth with a capital "T," mind you, but truth on a more modest scale: fairness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

While my sarcastic tone may suggest otherwise, I find myself agreeing with much of what Robert Scholes argues in The Rise and Fall of English. Yet I can't help wondering about the sheer number of books pouring out of academic presses focused on the dire straits of English in America. Am I alone in thinking there's something oddly ironic about this state of affairs? We seem to have book upon book preaching the need to reshape literary and composition studies, to bring them home to a wider audience, yet we spend our time navel-gazing within the academy. It's also a bit perplexing to make sense of the starkly apocalyptic tone of many of these books. Perhaps I have taught too long in a small department at a liberal-arts college in the rural West, but can things be quite so terrifying, so cruel, so cynical in the world of prestigious research schools? Do I dare to suggest that we are harvesting the fruits of long years of steady polemical infighting within these elite programs, producing a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome?

Having diagnosed the writer from afar, let me return to Scholes's central claims, which I find refreshing and helpful for me as a teacher of literature and writing. But then, on the surface, much of what Scholes advocates seems common practice at the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States. What looks radical to this talented writer/thinker is the apparent orthodoxy of the profession. Scholes argues with passion that we must set aside our obsession with theory and literary history. We should turn instead toward the practices--speaking, reading, and writing--that are most central to our discipline. Putting his argument in simple terms, Scholes advocates that we turn from literary criticism to rhetoric. He does so with full knowledge of our position within the larger social structure of this nation: "[w]e teachers of language and literature are mostly bourgeois subjects, engaged in trying to replicate ourselves in the service of government and corporate interests. Our job, as I see it, largely comes down to developing better bourgeois subjects--better than ourselves, that is, as well as better than they might be without our teaching" (67).

I'm hard pressed to disagree with these claims for our liberal duty. Those of us at least who work at "teaching institutions" spend a great deal of time concentrating on precisely these concerns. My teaching load typically consists of a first-year writing course, an advanced writing course and two literature courses. And in those literature courses, we devote a surprising amount of time to rhetoric--the generation and presentation of meaningful arguments about the texts under discussion. But as Scholes suggests, external pressures often turn such classroom activities into superficial, even pointless exercises. Pressures of accreditation, assessment, and departmental survival force teachers at many institutions to sacrifice a truly liberal education for a kind of shallow practical education.

It is reassuring to discover, then, that Scholes refines and clarifies his advice in the later chapters of this relatively short book. Conceding that most English departments devote tremendous energy and work hours to writing instruction, he wonders whether it adds up to anything like learning. He notes, first, that "[s]ervice courses, like the service entrances of mansions, are for those benighted folk who are not permitted to use the front door" (85). He also observes with considerable authority that we have settled for a "trivial" approach to teaching writing: we spend our time placing those hieroglyphic scratchings in the margins of student essays, knowing full well that few students apply a Rosetta stone to the remarks. In response to this labor-intensive but unrewarding teaching, he urges that we institute a truly "trivial" curriculum that focuses students' attention on textual consumption and production. (He is of course punning on the trivium, the medieval system centered on grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.) Both in general education courses and in the English major, students should become acute interpreters and makers of texts, empowered to stand on their own in an increasingly textualized culture. Scholes's provocative capstone high-school curriculum, for example, would follow this sequence:

I am so taken with this course outline that I will test it in my first-year writing course. Scholes's sophisticated schema has the virtue of emphasizing that "[t]exts are made mainly out of other texts" (98). Human beings are, if you will, intertextual animals. His balance between the classic and the modern has the added merit of reaching the students where they are while showing their relationship with "traditional" texts. In this course outline, then, Scholes demonstrates the pedagogical possibilities of his attention to "textual power" (the title of his earlier book).

I must add an important caveat here, though. Scholes recommends a strong turn from "hypocriticism" toward this more student-centered curriculum, at least implying that we suppress theoretical discussion in the classroom. Yet what we need more of, it seems, are the mind-opening theoretical disputes of which Scholes has grown weary. We need to devote more time in the classroom to, say, Robert Scholes. Why? Because theory has the virtue of distancing us from ourselves, allowing a perspective that we lose in our close reading of texts and our own psyches. In other words, theory can have the effect of liberating us from our petty parochialisms. Now there's a strong anti-theory streak running through Western American culture, and I myself ascribe to something like a pragmatic humanism. Yet we should shake ourselves up with a more rigorous, philosophically-informed study of our work together. When we read James Welch's Fools Crow together, can it hurt to introduce students to recent theorizing on postcolonial writing? Or to bring into the classroom disagreements among scholars of American Indian literature? Of course not. In fact, those very disagreements demonstrate the kind of engaged, sincere, well thought-out argumentation that Scholes values most.

The Rise and Fall of English has the virtue of confirming my teaching commitments while causing me to revise my practices from the ground up. Scholes inspires that self-evaluation by alternating between formal argument and personal essays. The personal essays, frankly, are the heart of the book, the real reason for picking up this deeply rhetorical text. The man can flat-out write, and so he can claim, truly, that he practices what he preaches: "We stand, above all, for sharing the powers and pleasures of this language with one another and with all those who seek our guidance in attaining those powers and pleasures" (72). In that way, he encourages me to continue my own work as a reader and writer, and to return to the classroom with a renewed sense that my students and I share a common enterprise, a common need, a common hope.

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