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Thoughts on the Decline of English Language and Literature Studies at American Universities


Naochika Takao
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: 19th-century American Literature


At international conferences on American literature and in lectures by American scholars in recent years, we increasingly hear that English language and literature departments at American universities are suffering from a lack of popularity. The numbers of students who go into English language and literature departments and young people looking to do further research are apparently dropping off sharply. Furthermore, the fact that this is happening in American universities means that the country is experiencing a decline in programs dedicated to its national literature. Rest assured that the situation is different at Japanese universities, and there are no similar signs of decline in the Chuo University Faculty of Letters. That said, we would be wrong to simply write off the phenomenon as someone else’s problem. It is widely known, after all, that Japan’s humanities departments are increasingly coming under fire as well. I would like to take a moment to consider the causes and effects of this phenomenon, as well as its significance as a person involved in the study of American literature in Japan.

A paradigm shift in the history of American literature studies: The source of fake news?

Very broadly speaking, literature studies at American universities have moved decidedly leftward in the last forty years or so. This trend began with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continued with the rise of feminism in the 1970s and efforts to address the income gaps that have been steadily widening since the Reaganomics of the 1980s. With more minorities and other socially disadvantaged groups demanding equal rights, works that appeal to social justice have been increasingly lauded as “correct” literature; conversely, what was formerly an unquestioning devotion to aestheticism in literature studies has gradually come to be seen as outdated.

With these developments, even writers who were once considered to be the great masters of literature cannot take it easy. Today’s textbooks on the history of American literature begin with the oral poetry of the Indians (though many dislike this term and use others, there are also many others who believe doing so covers up an aspect of their history) prior to the discovery of the new world and the verses of the Vikings who arrived in America prior to Columbus; what was once thought of as a very young country is now considered to actually possess a long literary heritage. Furthermore, texts by Black slaves, Indians, popular female writers, and other minority groups—works which until recently had not been considered serious targets of study—have been highly praised as resistance pieces fighting against political oppression. On the other hand, writers who were once canonized have fallen decidedly out of favor.

Were a similar situation to happen in Japan, the classical collections of waka poems and ancient stories—canonical works of aristocratic culture like the Man’yoshu, Nihon Shoki, and Kojiki, now the starting point on the royal road to the study of literary history—would be usurped by various writers from other cultures—oppressed groups like the Ainu or Ryukyuan people. Works which previously held positions of unquestioned supremacy would be seen as actually pandering to oppressive authority; if anything, those writers who sought to resist them would be considered the true greats. This situation would only lead to a serious destabilization of how literary value is assigned. What was considered true literature yesterday would turn to sham overnight. This young generation of Americans has been taught that literary value depends entirely on our perception and the social position of the perceiver. To those who have received this kind of liberal education in literary history, the rampant spread of “fake news” that is now frequently making headlines is hardly surprising at all.

The hidden link between the falling popularity of English language and literature studies and President Trump

For any country, departments that study its national literature are places that define that country’s identity. Given that national borders are drawn and redrawn through the countless military struggles and political negotiations that have taken place over the course of history, the idea of a definitive, unified culture is nothing more than pure fantasy. That said, the desire to believe that one’s national literature will survive into perpetuity is one form of identity politics and something that preserves a sense of national solidarity (the idea that literary history helps unify a country may seem laughable to the Japanese, but for a multicultural nation like the US, it is quite serious indeed).

So what does the average person do knowing that their national literature departments, once thought of as bastions of national identity, are moving decidedly leftward? To go back to a Japanese example, if all the studies in the country’s Japanese literature departments started saying that Soseki Natsume was a spy for the imperial government, or that Yasunari Kawabata was a feudalist who believed that women should be subservient to men, what would everyday people start thinking about the institutions of higher education that were conducting that research? (As an important aside, it should be mentioned that these are merely hypothetical examples, and that these kinds of studies are in no way taking hold in the Chuo University Faculty of Letters.) In the case of the US, do you think that whites over a certain age (in other words, those who have not received the kind of liberal education in literary history described earlier)—particularly blue-collar whites who have not received much higher education to speak of—are able to blithely accept the revisionist literary history the national literature departments are pushing? Do you think they are eager to send their sons and daughters to study there? One cannot help but feel that the election of America’s current president, a staunch anti-intellectual, is in this way tied to the decline of the nation’s English language and literature departments.

So what should we do with the study of foreign languages and literature in Japan?

Ironically, the falling popularity of English language and literature departments in the US represents a golden opportunity for Japanese students and young researchers, as several of the nation’s core university English departments have begun seriously recruiting foreign students to fill their classrooms. Scholarships and new student quotas once monopolized by American students are now being opened up to outsiders, so as long as you have sufficient practical English command and literary insight; you are in a better position than ever before to take advantage of the opportunity to study in the US.

Setting these practical effects aside, however, are there any lessons we can take from the decline of English language and literature departments at American universities? Here are some ideas. With the places that once defined America’s identity in decline, the potential to learn about American literature as world literature may mean that the field is now open to Japanese (or world) researchers as well. Given its multicultural nature, American literature no longer functions as the literary history of a single nation. Put another way, it now can be seen as the study of global literature.

John Manjiro (Manjiro Nakahama) lived in the US during the mid-nineteenth century and searched for gold in California during the gold rush. The popular song “Oh! Susanna” by Steven Foster, which Manjiro learned during that time, was brought back to Kochi when Manjiro returned to Japan. Because the song was originally written for racially-charged minstrel shows, then a form of popular entertainment, it features comic lyrics about a tone of voice of an African-American artist who travels from Alabama to Louisiana. Apparently, the Californians of the day changed the lyrics so that the traveler was making his way to the Golden State instead of Louisiana. This most likely inspired John Manjiro to change them again to “Tosa, Japan”. In any case, given the turbulent times in the late Tokugawa period and the threat of the US subjugating Japan, we can consider this song sung by Manjiro to have already taken a place in world literature. Filled with a scornful attitude towards blacks, it may have been repeatedly sung by Manjiro in an act of self-torture. Yet in doing so, he at the same time may have been appropriating the flexible forms of resistance adopted by black slaves as he identified a love for his native land with the lover in the song. The fact that this reading is even possible is a function of the multicultural nature of American literature, and this multicultural character is one that gives rise to new points of interest (new cultural value) that arise through the crossing of cultural boundaries. Paradoxically, the fact that we can now have these readings of American literature is a source for new hope—the hope that lies at the bottom of the Pandora’s Box that is the decline of English language and literature departments at American universities.
Naochika Takao
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: 19th-century American Literature

Naochika Takao graduated from the Department of English within the Faculty of Foreign Languages at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in March 1985. He went on to complete a master’s program in the Division of Humanities at the same university in March 1988, and in September 1993, completed the required course credits for a doctoral degree from the division’s Department of English. In September 1997, he completed the doctoral program in the Department of English, Division of Humanities at the State University of New York at Buffalo Graduate School. Takao served as full-time lecturer on the Faculty of Education at Tokyo Gakugei University from October 1993 to February 1997 before switching to an assistant professor position for the subsequent three years. In April 2000, he took a position as assistant professor on the Chuo University Faculty of Letters, advancing to his current professor position in April 2002.