Monday, December 11, 2017

“We are witnessing an extinction of fields of study once thought essential” by Nina Handler


“…I am a college English instructor. This is a bad time for my species — and a bad time for the study of English. In academe, we are witnessing an extinction of fields of study once thought essential. I teach at a private university that has just canceled majors in English, religious studies, philosophy, and music. The English major is becoming the useless gentleman [and gentlewoman]…

“In the academic struggle for existence, English has lost. This is not specific to my university; English has been weak for a while now. According to the Modern Language Association, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, English accounted for about 7.5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees granted in the United States. By 2004, the MLA reported, only 3.47 percent of college students earned bachelor’s degrees in English.
“The belletristic tradition is obsolete, and those who once imparted the art of rhetoric now strive to teach basic literacy. English, once a backbone of the university’s structure, has become a little-used organ with only vestigial value — the appendix of academia…
“Times change, and institutions of higher education must change along with them. If no one wants to study a particular field, if it’s not filling a niche, it will die a natural death. This is evolution in action. I have no choice but to accept that the vast majority of students at my university don’t want to major in English. They don’t want what I have to offer. Instead, they want degrees in the health sciences.
“Of course, my students and their worldviews don’t exist in a vacuum. They live in a culture that tells them in every way that STEM fields are where the money’s at and consequently are the only fields worth studying. They want to know — for the return on the gargantuan investment they and their families have made in a college education — that they will be able to get a well-paid job tied directly to their major.
“Once education is viewed as a hoop to be jumped through to get somewhere else, people start assigning value to it in a way that privileges direct connections to prosperity and jobs they can easily see. With no sense that being an English major leads to any job but being an English teacher, students are ‘voting with their feet,’ as my provost said when she canceled the major. Social Darwinism speaks of ‘survival of the fittest,’ a victim-blaming phrase that has been distorted to justify socially constructed imbalances of wealth and power. If you can’t make it, it’s your own fault — or it’s just nature taking its bloody course…
And not to diminish courses in health sciences, marketing, or communications, but I sometimes think that the most important thinking students do happens in their English classes. I’ve seen light bulbs go off over their heads. I’ve seen the moment when their brains seem to short-circuit — when the possibilities of interpretation, or the interplay of complexities and their implications in a text, are overwhelming. Then they go away and think some more and give me papers full of insight and analysis. I’ve seen English majors born in those classes… [Nevertheless], it’s hard to face one’s own extinction.”
From Facing My Own Extinction by Nina Handler

1 comment:

  1. The case for the humanities:

    “...Rain does not follow the plow. Political freedom, whatever the market evangelists may tell us, is not an automatic by-product of a growing economy; democratic institutions do not spring up, like flowers at the feet of the magi, in the tire tracks of commerce. They just don’t. They’re a different species. They require a different kind of tending. The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their ‘product’ not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their ‘success’ something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion. They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of. This, I would submit, is value— and cheap at the price. This is utility of a higher order. Considering where the rising arcs of our ignorance and our deference lead, what could represent a better investment? Given our fondness for slogans, our childlike susceptibility to bullying and rant, our impatience with both evidence and ambiguity, what could earn us, over time, a better rate of return?” (Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized” 2009).

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