In this lucid book an eminent scholar, teacher, and author takes a critical look at the nature and direction of English studies in America. Robert Scholes offers a thoughtful and witty intervention in current debates about educational and cultural values and goals, showing how English came to occupy its present place in our educational system, diagnosing the educational illness he perceives in today’s English departments, and recommending theoretical and practical changes in the field of English studies. Scholes’s position defies neat labels—it is a deeply conservative expression of the wish to preserve the best in the English tradition of verbal and textual studies, yet it is a radical argument for reconstruction of the discipline of English.
The book begins by examining the history of the rapid rise of English at two American universities—Yale and Brown—at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Scholes argues that the subsequent fall of English—discernible today in college English departments across the United States—is the result of both cultural shifts and changes within the field of English itself. He calls for a fundamental reorientation of the discipline—away from political or highly theoretical issues, away from a specific canon of texts, and toward a canon of methods, to be used in the process of learning how to situate, compose, and read a text. He offers an eloquent proposal for a discipline based on rhetoric and the teaching of reading and writing over a broad range of literatures, a discipline that includes literariness but is not limited to it.