The Closing-Down of British Studies in the American Mind

America’s immigration-driven slide into Third World status affects all areas of life. Thus American higher education has jettisoned traditional areas of study in favor of trendy, multicultural topics. In particular, the closing-down of British Studies in History and English Departments fills a young academic like myself with woe. Within a generation, many college graduates will be largely ignorant of British civilization and its profound influence on (pre-1965) American society. 

Chronicled by professional organization such as the North American Conference on British Studies, (NACBS) the decline of tenure-track positions since 1970 is staggering and frightening.[NACBS Report on the State and Future of British Studies in North America, November 18, 1999]

Currently, a hiring season will produce only a handful (5-10) tenure track jobs that hundreds of applicants will compete for. In the past two hiring seasons, Wake Forest University and Lake Forest College saw record-breaking numbers of applicants for the single positions they offered. I’m told by a contact at Princeton that last year’s hiring season produced only one tenure-track opening in Early Modern British History.  Coupled with the fact that over seventy percent of faculty are now off the tenure track, a full-time assistant professorship is becoming as rare as the dodo.

Increasingly, the lottery-winning applicants who gain positions do so by professing to be comparative historians—in other words, they make themselves more attractive to hiring committees by showing they are specialists in the Empire (Africa, Asia, trendy non-white peoples).

Many state universities now only employ one or two British History specialists while boasting multiple instructors trained in the latest victim studies, (black, gay, women’s histories).

This decline over the past two generations constitutes a dramatic abandonment of traditional scholarship.

In Eisenhower’s America, it was routine to find multiple British specialists within the History Departments of large universities. Chairs and tenure committees even regarded the antiquarian Toryism of academics like Russell Kirk as charming—not dangerously reactionary. These were halcyon days of leather-elbowed tweed jackets, meerschaum pipes and common rooms where teachers sought, in the words of Edmund White, to plant “Anglican primroses amidst the alien corn.”

Many Americans academics strongly believed in Harold Macmillan’s quip that the British ought to act as Greeks to America’s Rome. In the Empire’s twilight, young ruddy-cheeked American college freshmen were required to read their Milton and know just who won at Flodden Field and Naseby. Additionally, quotas holding down the proportion of Jewish students may have helped keep WASP culture alive within the Ivy League.

The New Left and its campus upheavals proved to be the death knell for this traditional curriculum. Students for a Democratic Society activists preferred to read Fanon, Althusser and Marcuse instead of Keith Feiling or G.M. Trevelyan. Black students imported via Affirmative Action complained of cultural imperialism and whined loudly about how abusive it was to require that they read Shakespeare and Dickens.

In response, many Departments meekly complied and watered down their syllabi. By the early Eighties, younger professors also began teaching the works of little-known female and minority writers in order to diversify the curriculum. Carlyle and Macaulay were out; Annis Boudinot Stockton and Olaudah Equiano were in.

Older readers may not recognize those last two names from their undergraduate years. If you went to university before 1970, consider yourself lucky. You were mercifully spared from having to read them!

But when I was a wide-eyed Ivy League freshman early in the new millennium, my professors insisted that I study the works of characters I’d never heard of and inwardly despised.

Desperate to seem relevant to bored, undereducated students, my professors occasionally attempted to appear cool and hip to their dozing audiences. One instructor casually dropped the “F” word when discussing Shakespeare’s imitation of Petrarch’s sonnet construction. Other students found this amusing. I thought it juvenile and inappropriate.

As a teenager, I had been fortunate enough to attend a decent public high school out in the New England woods. There, a stolid English teacher whom I will call Mr. A—ground us through the traditional English canon. For British literature, we began with Beowulf and ended with Waugh. American literature started with Anne Bradstreet and ended with Tom Wolfe. Despite not possessing a Harvard Ph.D, Mr. A— knew more about English literature than most assistant professors I’ve met. In contrast, my politically correct college instructors seemed inauthentic and posturing in their passionate exaltations of multiculturalism. I concluded I’d learn more through reading on my own then listening to the unkempt Trotskyist academic haranguing us from the lectern. 

My initial sense of disaffection from my coursework is a common experience for American college students. I went to college to consume, “real” history and “real” literature; in other words, the history of European mankind and his achievements. I hadn’t expected to be served stale Derrida and wilted Adorno while have to spend several thousand dollars a class on it. While I completed the assignments in order to earn the high marks required for graduate school, I felt cheated.

What I most objected to was the deceptive insertion of black and women’s literature into classes with traditional titles. For instance, a course named British Literature 1688-1865 sounds solid enough. However, the syllabus reveals a devil’s brew of radical texts and long-forgotten pamphleteers, which appealed to the Marxist instructor. Additionally, the only proper way to critique literature was through Marxist and post-structuralist lenses. Otherwise, you’d be marked down—presumably for impudence as well as false consciousness. 

Matters were no better in my British history classes either. Slanted towards the Left and passionate about the Empire Windrush, my professor praised Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia. I bit the inside of my cheek in response to keep from smirking—and made sure to read Simon Heffer’s biography of Enoch Powell that summer. Traditional areas such as political and intellectual history weren’t even discussed; race, class and gender trumped all other considerations.

I began compiling a list of forgotten British historians whom this UC-Berkeley Ph.D. presumably hadn’t ever read. I got up to thirty names before the semester’s end.

I realized that I would get my degree from this university but that my real education was in my own hands. It has been composed of both formal schooling and autodidactic reading—John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle and Benjamin Disraeli. It’s a sad comment that these works are now practically samizdat texts at universities across the country. 

I’d recommend this approach to traditional-minded young people. Organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Rockford Institute provide excellent reading lists and discussion groups for serious intellectual inquiry.

I do feel a sense of Schadenfreude against leftist academics who now dominated British history and literature. Having eviscerated traditional curricula and re-engineering syllabi to cater to their own ideological obsessions, they now find themselves obsolete. Jesse Jackson’s mantra of “hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has  got to go” came true and British studies slots are now reserved for specialists in Africa and Asia.

We will be poorer as a result of this unpleasant transformation.  

If Americans are to preserve a distinct cultural heritage, we will have to uncover and transmit it for ourselves. Currently, I am a member of a discussion group which regularly meets to read vital books for our decadent age. An excellent book to begin any circle with is Russell Kirk’s America’s British Culture . Kirk successfully articulated an accurate history of our nation’s origins and provided an excellent antidote against multiculturalist poison.

Academe may be lost. But our minds are certainly not. Awakened Americans will regain a heritage of permanency and quality by learning more about their past.

What’s more, they will be better prepared to create a superior future. 

Peter Sayles [Email him] is an ardent New Englander who teaches at several colleges, making sure to offer the appropriate songs and dances required for occupational survival. He moonlights as a reactionary intellectual, writing for various Right Opposition publications. Should you wish to meet him, he can be found at H.L. Mencken Club conferences and various dive bars.