The Rise and Fall of English (subtitled Reconstructing English as a Discipline) is a book released in 1998 by Professor Robert Scholes of Brown University. In a nutshell, it discusses how English came to be the field of study it is today, how it is currently serving little purpose except to train nothing but English teachers (who in turn will train nothing but English teachers), and what Scholes suggests these teachers do to rebuild English as a discipline with practical purposes.
This was required reading for one of my college English classes and I found it to be strangely intriguing once I dragged myself through the drawn out, boring prose. It's broken into five separate chapters that could stand alone as their own essays, but each one is directly related with the next. There are also four mini-chapters fit snugly in between each of the regular chapters which I didn't care for much because they basically reinstated ideas that had already been talked to death.
Although Scholes discusses countless aspects of English's history and current state, his main goal in this book is to shape its future. He feels English is a "field of study" with a "canon of texts" but should be a "discipline" with a "canon of methods". This is really an interesting idea that is hard to understand without giving some background information and detail.
Scholes sees the study of English literature in today's current social and academic climate as an exercise in hypocrisy. English professors on a collegiate level need to publish criticism as part of their job. These critiques of texts, whether classic or modern, are supposed to have a sort of ideological purpose. For example, the goal of New Criticism (basically a more in depth method of what is currently taught in high schools) is to unveil the universal messages and timeless truths of aesthetic greats. When one explicates a poem by John Keats or writes an essay about iambic pentameter in Shakespeare, New Criticism is more than likely the type of method being applied.
However, those who practice New Criticism may not actually believe there is universal truth to find (especially since Jacques Derrida set out turning meaning in language on its head with deconstruction). Likewise, those who write feminist or Marxist criticism might not truly advocate feminist or Marxist causes. Due to the making a living as a professor in English, criticism of some sort must be published regardless of ideological beliefs.
Scholes creates a witty new word to describe the methodology hypocritical critics: hypocriticism. He argues that much this "hypocriticism" English professors write is not only contradictory to their beliefs, but also perpetuates a canon of texts. By a canon of texts, Scholes means an exulted group of literary works that professors feel obligated to teach, whether the students will learn any practical skills out of studying it or not. Thus, high school students (some of which have no desire to pursuit literature anyway) are superficially required to learn about exulted texts. For example, take The Great Gatsby. Filling out multiple choice questions about whether the light at the end of the Buchanan's dock was green or turquoise or both or none of the above doesn't teach jack, but because The Great Gatsby is one of the books in the canon of texts, teachers are required to teach it.
Scholes strongly argues the dominating and perverse practice of professors writing hypocriticism as well as students learning nothing useful from literature could be fixed through a radical restructuring of English as discipline with a canon of methods. Teachers would first decide what skills they would teach, not what texts. For example, one such skill might be detecting subjectivity in language. Other skills Scholes advocates teaching include emulating the writing styles of others and communicating clearly by precise diction. In Scholes' ideal discipline, an English teacher would decide what skills they would be teaching first, then texts would be chosen.
With the emphasis on skills rather than knowledge of lengthy novels, Scholes argues that several benefits will result: Students wishing to study areas other than English will have learned more about critical thinking, reading and writing which can be carried into other fields; students that go on to study English will have a better set of analytical tools to examine literature with; and eventually, a paradigm shift will occur among English professors in academia and hypocriticism will come to a halt.
I've thought of three ways to use the ideas in this book. First, if you are studying or teaching English now and you agree with Scholes' ideas, you could adjust your own way of learning or teaching to fit with his idea of learning skills rather than texts. Second, if you disagree with Scholes' ideas, you could at least try to understand the perceptions of those who feel that English has some serious problems as a field of study. Third, if you are not interested in studying or teaching English, but are still unfortunately stuck in high school and required to take English courses anyway, you can use this book as ammo against your obtuse, authoritative automaton teachers by telling them they are helplessly attempting to perpetuate a failing system through their backwards teaching methods.