The English major has lost its way; here is a path back.

I have had the advantage of having degrees in both biology and English. I know how each is taught, and the requirements of each.

If you major in biology, you will be well-prepared to understand biological processes. If, however, you major in English, you will be little prepared to even understand the poems, stories, and books you’re supposed to be studying.

A biology major at any university is required to take at least four classes in chemistry, two classes in physics, and one class in calculus. This is because chemistry underlies biology, physics underlies chemistry, and math underlies physics. You need to understand each in order to understand biology. You won’t get your degree without that knowledge. 

In English, things are very different. Rather than gaining any true knowledge or understanding of works of literature, literary studies are dominated by fads—and not even the most recent fads, at that—most of which politicize literature, including Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and ethnic studies (which are typically anti-Western).

As a result, English has a tendency to attract faculty ideologues, as the radical politics found in most English departments show. Many students who major in it believe it’s an easy major that you can “BS” your way through.

What do you need to understand literature? Based on the requirements of most English departments, nothing other than the classes taught in the department. While biology builds upon knowledge in other fields, English stands on a shaky foundation of dubious or outdated theories about literature.

Early in the twentieth century, an approach known as “close reading” was developed by the “New Critics,” including Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. They argued that the author’s intentions didn’t matter and that the readers’ emotional reactions to the works didn’t matter. With close reading, you didn’t have to know anything about the author or the social context of the work; all you needed to do was read the work very carefully and look for all the ways the words could create meaning together.

Certainly it is important that one pay close attention to the actual words on the page, which is why close reading has never ceased being taught, but literary works are not a self-contained world with no outside context. After a while, you run out of things to say about any text using this approach—the law of diminishing returns sets in. This is a sure sign something is amiss with something as generative as literature.

Structuralism then arose out of the study of linguistics, bringing with it the idea that the world is fundamentally structured, and that it is primarily structured by language. It seems obvious that linguistics should be used to study literature, but this also brought in ideologies like Marxism that sought to find structure and order in the world. And if the world is structured by language, one can always change the language to change the structure of the world.

Poststructuralism and postmodernism, which began in the 1960s but really took hold in the 80s, were in part a reaction to these approaches.

The poststructuralists argued that the world is fundamentally disordered and that language can neither order it nor provide it with any real meaning. They argued against reason and saw everything as being, at bottom, about power relations. Literature was about ignoring reality, not presenting it.

The postmoderns in turn were radical skeptics of knowledge itself. In literary studies, they asked what was missing in a text. They questioned whether literature provided any sort of knowledge or understanding whatsoever. However, they also insisted that the meaning of a text was dependent on the context of its creation or the culture in which it was being read. Stanley Fish, a literary theorist who developed what is called Reader Response Theory, in particular, argued that the reader’s response to a text did in fact matter.

Indeed, the postmoderns argued that there was not a single meaning of the text that could be discovered, but rather that there were multiple meanings—contradictory meanings—that a text could and would have. There is nothing but variety in the world, without unity.

What, for example, is Hamlet “about”? The postmodernists would first point out that you have erred in assuming that it is “about” anything specific. It does not have meaning; it has meanings.

Is Hamlet insane? Or just crazy like a fox? Why does Hamlet delay doing anything for most of the four-and-a half-hour play?

There are probably a dozen or more answers that can be given. Which is the right one? That is a structuralist question. There is no “right one,” according to the poststructuralists and postmodernists. What does Hamlet mean? All answers to that question are correct. So long, at least, as you can support it from the text and its context and, of course, your working theory. 

Structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism brought in political interpretations of literature, typically Marxist or feminist. given the politics of most professors of literature. These in turn made Freudian interpretations of literature fashionable, though Freud’s own work had ceased being at the forefront of psychological research decades before. Hamlet is an Oedipal character; the only things at play in the play are power structures; the play is really a critique of (or support for) capitalism, militarism, paternalism, the social construct of madness, etc. Most of the ideas held by those who study literature have ceased being relevant within their original fields fifty years ago or more.

Now, I can imagine the defenders of literary studies tradition arguing, “But there’s plenty of good-quality content in literary studies, what with Marxist economics, feminism, Freudian psychology, Jungian psychology, philology, and cultural studies involved!” However, these ideas are presented only within the context of literary studies; worse, those who actually study these fields would consider the level of knowledge of these fields demonstrated by literary scholars superficial at best. And few if any alternative ways of interpreting texts are even considered.

That is, students get these approaches primarily from the literature professors themselves, and rarely from primary sources in other disciplines. Nobody is required to take economics or sociology or psychology or anthropology, even though literary studies supposedly draws from those fields. As a result, students who eventually become professors are almost entirely unfamiliar with the fields literary criticism is said to be based upon.

Literary theorists often rely on Marxist economic notions, for example, but today you find few Marxists outside of English departments. In psychology, why are so many still using Freud and Jung? If we need psychology to understand literature, most professors are stuck in theories that no longer have much support in the discipline.

Works of literature are made by human beings, whose behaviors we understand using psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology. It seems that in the same way that biology majors are required to take classes in fields that underlie biology, English, and other literary studies majors ought to be required to take classes in fields that underlie literary production.

These would include psychology classes—including classes on the brain, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology. They would include sociology classes and economics classes—microeconomics and a history of economic thought class, at the very least. They would include anthropology classes on storytelling and the origins of the arts.

A properly constructed English program would reflect both the content of the texts students are supposed to be trying to understand—often stories about people interacting with each other in social situations and dealing with economic issues—and the sociology and psychology underlying the very creation of works of literature.

We do see a few such analyses. Consider Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning by Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottshall, et al. and Jane Austen: Game Theorist, by Michael Chwe (a political scientist).

If we replaced the superficial rhetoric and dubious theoretical courses that dominate literary studies with substantive courses in psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology as support for the study of literature, it would become not only a deeply valuable major but one of the more difficult programs you could major in. Thus, the study of literature would finally become a highly respected major that attracts the best and brightest.