Sunday, 28 October 2012

Globalizing English Studies

Penn’s English chair, James F. English (with a monicker like that how could he be other than universal?), has written a worldwide assessment of our discipline that every doctoral candidate must assimilate! “The Global Future of English Studies” (Wiley-Blackwell,2012, 202pp.) is a profound yet commonsense analysis of the English Major worldwide in the 21st century. It is the 35th title in a series I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of--“Blackwell Manifestos”. Including on my must read soon list titles like Terry Eagleton’s “The Idea of Culture”, Marjorie Perloff’s “21st Century Modernism”, and Wayne C. Booth’s “The Rhetoric of RHETORIC” plus no fewer than six on theological themes.
English” in this context is as universal as it is global—covering literature, language, culture, creative writing and ’other’.” Its down-to-earthiness is evident in sections entitled “The End of the Discipline as We Know It”,” Not a Bust but a Boom,” and “Doing More with Less”. Ironically, the day that the book arrived on interlibrary exchange from the leading library in Berlin, NPR ran a story on academic esteem in the U.S. in which the English Major was at the bottom of the prestige list! But Professor English is not easily discouraged. “69% of English majors in the United States are women, 70% in the United Kingdom, and more than 75% in virtually all the other counties of Europe.” (p.177.)A U.S. Department of Education report notes that males are gaining ground in the past decade—probably ,they argue, from larger male. participation in creative writing.

Outside the U.S. the data are astonishing. I learned in the International Herald Tribune today (October 8, 2012) that the University of Tokio (founded 1837)has just announced a PEAK program (Progress in English at Kamboa!) the first 4 year all English instruction in required courses.” At Sun-Yet Sen University in Guangzhou the largest program in their School of Foreign Languages is English language and Literature:47 full time tenure-stream faculty teaching 2300 students. Their History faculty has 42 tenured but a mere 366 students.(p.179.) If there’s one principle silently reiterated in this analysis is that every class in every country must design diverse teaching ploys to match a changing world with idiosyncratic student bodies.

Which leads me to pretend that I am redesigning the International English course I devised after 30 years of teaching!(See BSR essay.) What have I learned in 30 years of alternative journalism throughoutt the globe. The main idea I have learned is the intellectual crippling resulting from our American Exceptionalist ruse. You remember how the Edinburgh Review (Scots are zany Exceptionalists as well! )sneered “How many see a American play or read an American book.” Too few, indeed! Alas, now that our literature has overwhelming and well earned global respect even fewer Americans possess this heritage. How to lose when you’re almost winning.

So I would seek out foreign response to our native geniuses , say a Nietsche on Emerson, as well as thegeneral reactions of twentieth century immigrants to America. Don’t forget the canonical was first devised to refer to theological opinions you had to believe, or at worst were killed. We should be future oriented, eager to learn how the rests of the world are responding to our ideas and actions about their different cultures-- say, Iran, Iraq. Afghanistan, Palestine, the Arab Spring. 

Our glib assumption that we’re the All Time Number One on Humanities Hit Parade is a self-deluding error that could destroy us. We sneer at the self-destructive behaviors of our closest neighbor, Mexico, mainly oblivious to the nefarious results of our seizing their land as “ours” in the 19th century. How many Americans would flinch at my conviction that Canada is more civilized than most Americans, judging by how we react to our differences with them. How terminally adolescent is the widespread fantasy that we are the greatest country in the present world, perhaps in the whole global history.

The content of our curriculum can vary from state to state, city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family.(Education begins at home—and should never end there) To prepare American Literature professors to oversee such an ecumenical curriculum, they must be taught to handle the future more creatively. I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s “seminar” on CNN yesterday (October 7) on European tactics for reducing unemployment. He grilled the CEOs of Siemens, and other European employers. 

Siemens trains promising high school graduates for three years at full pay and a promise of a job—to replace new retirees. Too much is made in America of college educations. (Too many of those I observed for thirty years are a waste of time and talent.) The Siemens man reminded the audience that apprentice and blue collar were not always a sneerable category. After all, he reminded us memory suppressed Americans, Ben Franklin moved from Boston to Philadelphia to “apprentice” at printing! Better a proud working class than frustrated one. False prestige squabbles has crippled many Americans. By comparing our institutions with other culture’s, we can improve ourselves.

To achieve such pervasive meliorism, doctoral candidates must know more about the disciplines that surround their own. That is why Harvard celebrated its tercentennial in 1936 with an interdisciplinary doctorate. In the 17th century American Lit was theology; in the 18th, politics, it wasn’t until the mid 19th that it “achieved” belles lettres stature. Most of the rest of the world is passing through such development now. We should be the first to identify with them. 

Why does Canada do this so creatively than us? Because they didn’t have the corruption of slavery to enslave them intellectually. Indeed when we have purged our hidden guilt we are ready to, for example, set better examples for the Arab Spring as well as the Islamic last battle with modernism. I am grateful forever to my Western Reserve professors who encouraged my deeper appreciation of American Lit with three complementary prelims in American Art and Architecture, American Philosophy and its European Antecedents, and American Economic History.

Finally, I discovered the an apprenticeship in newer media can give a teacher. (Tom Jones at WFIL-TV encouraged me to shoot cultural films for Temple professor John Roberts’ weekend news).Finally, it led to my first documentary “Moses Land of Promises” on the 1964 New York World Fair. In Hawaii I had a weekly radio series over KAIM-FM, Honolulu called “Pacific Profile”. I would grill a visitor on his expertise. 

As I drove the editor of Kerala, India’s daily paper back to the airport, I asked how he knew that Thomas Jefferson risked imprisonment by stealing a new Italian rice in an hollow cane. He smiled: “You’re no longer a Third World country! Jefferson was obsessed with helping his farmer neighbors to succeed against the kind of problems we now have in India. He was a good man!” Such experiences convinces me that doctorates should include one prelim on media—whether that involved mastering radio or TV, or learning a language like Arabic or Mandarin so she could translate their poetry, essay, and fiction for more open-minded Americans, eager to identify with the rest of the world seeking to be middle class. If I were doing it again, I’d do a Peace Corps type gig as teaching ESL in an Arabic country as I mastered their vernacular.

Those are the kind of thoughts James F. English’s ”The Global Future as English Studies” triggered in my head. A good read. I even encourage you to study English under English at Penn.

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