I attended a talk given by Adam Gopnik, the long-time staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine, here in Vancouver about a year and a half ago, as part of the CBC Studio One Book Club series of talks given by prominent writers. It was a relatively intimate affair, with no more than two-hundred audience members, so I got to see him up close. The first thing I noticed was that he was not overdressed, like I remember his father, Irwin Gopik, always being when I took a course with him at McGill University back in the late nineteen-seventies. No wide-brimmed fedora or fancy flowing overcoat with a built-in capelet for Adam. He was wearing jeans, albeit nice (but not too nice) jeans, a white cotton shirt topped by a dark-coloured woolen sports jacket, and casual leather shoes. In other words, tasteful, appropriate, clothing. As a secondary observation, other than the clothes he did look somewhat like his father, with a similar, smallish, build; but he wasn’t a clone. I’d always wondered why, when he was simply teaching university classes, Professor Gopnik seemed to be trying too hard to impress with his attire. After reading Adam Gopnik’s recent blog post for the New Yorker, “Why Teach English?” I think I have a much better idea.
Adam Gopnik’s blog post is divided into basically three main parts. The first and final parts are concerned with the present state of university English departments–or at least appear to be. (I’ll clarify what I mean by this shortly.) In the middle part, Gopnik discusses the experiences of his father as a student of English literature, beginning probably in the nineteen-fifties, and then university English teacher. After this leap back in time, in the final part of the post, Gopnik appears not to have really let go of the past. Furthermore, the past of which he hasn’t let go seems to be very romanticized, despite some of the hardships to which he previously alluded that his father had to endure to study and teach English. Those who enjoy reading and who, after reading Gopnik’s stirring final remarks, are contemplating enrolling in university English courses, should really think twice.
In the first part of the post, Gopnik does present some of the negatives. He points out that university English departments in the United States have been having a rough time lately, including dealing with steadily declining enrollments since the nineteen-seventies. (Enrollments also have declined in Canada.) Gopnik isn’t at all convinced by two currently popular defences of English departments (and of the humanities in general)–one that they make for better people and the other that they make for better societies–and presents good cases against both. He also acknowledges that the study of literature would survive if English departments were all closed down, and notes the rise in recent years of reading groups and book clubs, which, according to Gopnik, “form, in effect, a kind of archipelago of amateur English departments.” (I never before thought of the Studio One Book Club, of which I’ve attended a few sessions, in quite that way.)
Although, in the first part of his post, Gopnik seems almost ready to concede that the critics are right and university English departments have had their day, in the second part, he begins to mount a defence for the preservation of English departments, using his father as an example of how students of English literature may benefit from their studies.
I didn’t know until I read “Why Teach English?” that the English professor I knew from McGill came from such a humble background. As the child of a Jewish immigrant grocer and butcher who, according to his grandson, had no interest in reading, he undoubtedly faced major challenges doing a degree in English literature in the United States when he did. Although Adam Gopnik doesn’t get into all the details in his blog post, this was a period when American (and Canadian) universities were still reserved for the elite, and when there was a much more clearly-defined social-class hierarchy throughout the Western world than there is at present. This was reflected in university curricula. In university English departments, this was still the age of the “Great Books” approach, when virtually all that was studied was books by white, upper-class, males, primarily from European countries. It would seem that, in order to be successful as a student, and then teacher, in that environment, he had to become, in several key respects, someone other than who he was. For example, according to his son, his father’s primary area of study and research was the eighteenth-century British wits (Pope, Richardson, Swift and Fielding), which, at least in my view, seems rather odd for a twentieth-century Jewish guy from Philadelphia. (The course I took with him in the late nineteen-seventies was about something else entirely, about which I’ll say more shortly.) By adapting himself as he did, he got to do a great deal more reading than he otherwise was likely to have been able to do (although not necessarily of the books he may have wanted to read). He also eventually got to become a university professor, and earn a decent living doing a job that was socially-respected–and that didn’t involve cleaving animal carcasses. But, although Adam Gopnik doesn’t get into this in his blog post, there seem to have been psychological costs as well.
In the third and final part of his blog post, Adam Gopnik gets back to the present–or so it would first appear. He discusses the pleasure to be derived from reading books, and suggests that it is, at bottom, because many people simply like to read, and to talk about what they’ve read, that university English departments exist. According to Gopnik, particularly for those who, like his father, come from backgrounds in which reading opportunities are limited, university English departments serve a unique ‘democratizing’ function–that presumably sets them apart from book clubs, and so on. (Admission to the Studio One Book Club is entirely free–although space is limited.) As Gopnik puts it, “To have turned the habits of reading and obsessing over books from a practice mostly for those rich enough to have the time to do it into one that welcomes, for a time anyway, anyone who can is momentous. English departments democratize the practice of reading. When they do, they make the books of the past available to all. It’s a simple but potent act.” He concludes by suggesting that today’s students would not be wasting their time if they were to get a get a university degree in English, and then do something else that, in the current context, is more obviously remunerative. (Those university teaching jobs are few and far between today.)
The biggest problem with Adam Gopnik’s “Why Teach English?” is that between the period when his father was a university student, supposedly reaping the benefits of all his extra reading time, and the present, there were a whole lot of years, decades even, during which our universities were in great flux. I came on the university scene, initially, somewhere in the middle of the flux.
I didn’t take the course I took with Professor Gopnik entirely by choice. I was a Communications major at McGill, studying mainly educational media and making films. But, at that time, Communications was a relatively new offering at McGill, and McGill’s Communications program (which generally was a good one) was part of McGill’s English department. In order to get an Honours degree in Communications, one had to take a special course for all English Honours students taught by Professor Gopnik called, I think, “Theories of Literary Criticism.” (I may not have the name of the course exactly right. It was a long time ago.) I thought at that time I might one day want to do graduate work in Communications and that an Honours degree could increase my chances of being accepted into grad school, so I took the course–even though I already had misgivings about English literature as it was taught within universities. (I had earlier taken a couple of lower-level university English courses.) Even by then, Professor Gopnik also seemed to be having some misgivings.
In that course I took with him, he presented to the class all the different approaches to academic literary criticism that were then being used (historical, biographical, social, structural, and so on) and invited the class to smash them all to smithereens. As was apparent to most of us (there may have been a couple of student holdouts), not a single one of them was objective, which was then–and still is–the supposed sine qua non of all academic research, even in the humanities. Professor Gopnik obviously agreed with the majority, even picking up the sledgehammer himself on several occasions. But then, for the final essay assignment, which counted for a significant portion of our overall final grades for the course, we were presented with the impossible task of doing essentially a traditional piece of academic literary research, using any method that we chose. I don’t know what other students did, but I ended up resorting to my knack for numbers (my mother used to say I should have been an accountant), and tried to pull a fast one with some superficially impressive, but ultimately meaningless, statistics, extracted from a poem by Dylan Thomas. (My final essay included a three-page, four-colour, fold-out graph. Honest to God.) Professor Gopnik seemed to like the paper–at least he gave me the ‘A’ I was after–although I’m fairly certain he was too clever to have actually been deceived by the statistics (and by all the pretty colours on the graph).
University English departments, and the humanities in general, were to get even worse in the decades to come. By the early nineteen-nineties, when I eventually returned to university to begin graduate work (in Education), our universities had become highly politicized. The old elitist structures that used to support our universities were crumbling, as our universities welcomed a greater variety of students, whose numbers were now sufficiently great that they no longer needed to conform to traditional narrow standards.
My experience as a graduate student generally was not a pleasant one. Through the mechanism of student evaluation, students in various humanistic disciplines (including parts of Education), seemed to now be essentially recruited as “child soldiers” for various political factions in the academic wars. If you resisted, because you disagreed with a particular political position, or because you felt these wars were not yours to fight or, perhaps, because you simply weren’t a child anymore, there was hell to pay. (Mid-career students, of which I was one when I was a graduate student, who already are politically-affiliated in professions other than the academic profession, and in which they are currently active or to which they expect to return after their university studies, are likely to have an especially turbulent time.)
It is primarily because of the current political chaos that I’ve personally observed in our universities that I believe that, barring major changes in the evaluation of university students, the humanities, and related humanistic aspects of professional schools like Education, should be removed from our universities. Until such changes are made, university students need to be very, very, cautious and, in my view, would be better to avoid programs like English literature.
Back to the Gopniks, père et fils, Professor Gopnik, who I understand is still alive, must be roughly the same age now as are my parents, who are both well past eighty. When parents are that age, it’s not fair for their adult children to say nasty things about them (unless, perhaps, they did something truly horrible). Nor is it fair to say things about their profession that might diminish them in the eyes of others, if these are things that the parents aren’t prepared to publicly acknowledge themselves. Perhaps I’m projecting my own feelings towards my parents onto Adam Gopnik, but I think one factor that may have contributed to him being so generous in his assessment of today’s university English departments–including completely overlooking the current political turmoil and its potential ill-effects on students–was simply that he didn’t want to hurt his father, or damage his father’s reputation. I generally have great respect for this father–he was one of the more honest and intelligent professors I met in my university career, although perhaps a tad insecure–and I honestly don’t think he would mind. I’m glad I took that course with him.
If you’ve been following this blog, you may already have noticed the resemblance of the graphic at the beginning of this post to the graphic I used for my recent post, “ACH-U: Out With the Old and In With the New.” I mentioned in that post that I would be using that graphic again, albeit in a modified form, for a post about post-secondary education, and this is that post. I’ve copied a miniature version of the original below. And yes, before all of the manipulations, and the filters, and more filters, the graphic at the beginning of this post was (other than the letters) just a picture of a colourful kite flying in the wind. I prefer the original version.