I was just so happy this past spring to be back in a classroom after all that time away and felt so lucky to have this group of students that I never thought any deep and important---and dire---thoughts about the state of higher education in America or the decline of the English major or whither the humanities.
Mostly what I thought all semester was what a great gig I had, being paid to listen to a bunch of very smart, very talented, very energetic, and very cheerful young people talk intelligently about reading and writing fiction and the art of storytelling.
But Verlyn Klinkenborg has been thinking along those worried lines and he’s expressed his thoughts soberingly in the New York Times. Klinkenborg wrote one of my favorite books of non-fiction, Making Hay, which I rank up there with the best of John McPhee. He's taught writing at some prestigious schools and his experiences have him concerned.
The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times. So says a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so says the experience of nearly everyone who teaches at a college or university. Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.
In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number.
In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.
If I had been inclined to think similar deep, important, and dire thoughts, I’m not sure I’d have been able to draw on my students for much insight without ruining the class---or at least part of a class day---for them. They were cheerful but they were all business. They were taking a course in fiction writing and that’s what they wanted to talk about, writing fiction. They rarely went off on tangents themselves and they grew visibly impatient when the garrulous old coot at the head of the table began to wander in his thoughts out loud. (Fortunately, one of them was particularly adept at guiding me back on topic. I think she’d had a lot of practice tactfully manipulating foggy middle-aged men and I wonder at what point her father lost control of the family to her and if he was even aware of it. I’d guess when she was around eight and probably he wasn’t.) They wouldn’t have sat still if I’d interrupted their class time to hash out the future of the humanities and the mystery of the vanishing English major.
Even if they’d let me waste their time on the subject, their views probably wouldn’t have told me much about the general state of higher education. They were hardly a representative bunch, not even of the students at their own university. For starters, they were all honors students and honors students who’d chosen to take a fiction writing workshop. They liked to read and had read widely. They were good writers. By that I mean, of course, they were technically proficient. They knew how to organize a thought and lay it out in clear, grammatical sentences that parsed. They knew a participle from a gerund. They even knew how to use semi-colons. Boy, did they know how to use semi-colons. They were in love with semi-colons and were as a group indignant when I told them Kurt Vonnegut hated semi-colons.
I don’t think I ever caught even one of them using it’s for its.
That proficiency by itself marks them as different not just from their peers at Syracuse or almost every other college in America but from most Americans under sixty.
But I also mean they were good writers. They knew what makes a good story and they had good stories to tell. They could describe an action, set a scene, create a character and bring it all to life in lively and (mostly) lovely prose.
They had style.
And, like the good writers they were, they took to being edited. When I’d say maybe you could move this up (or down) there or you could dump this bit entirely or you need to add this or that or try putting it another way or it’d be better if you started with this or your scene’s really over here, they were quick and eager to jump on it and they didn’t just make the changes I suggested or exactly as I suggested. They came back with their own fixes. Often they were ahead of me and saw my point as soon as I began to make it and had an idea they wanted to try right away. They were also good at editing each other. They were kind and polite but they were tough and they were usually spot on.
It was a kick listening to them at work together and a pleasure to read their writing, especially since their subjects varied. We had stories in what we called gritty realism, science fiction, murder mysteries, thrillers, fairy tales, a children’s story with illustrations by the author, and even a Western.
Did I mention that these students were all women?
You’re probably thinking, an English professor’s dream of a class. And they were.
Except that only two of them were English majors and one of the two was really an education major. She plans to be a grade school teacher.
The others were a physicist, a biologist and chemist, an engineer, two psychologists, two majors in international relations, two advertising majors, two journalists, and a religion major minoring in something called Global Enterprise Technology.
I look over the list of their majors and smile at the variety but I also note they have something in common. They're all spending their college careers observing, studying, and analyzing human nature, which is what writers do, think a lot about what makes people tick.
But the mood he's in, I'd expect Klinkenborg would look over the list and note, ruefully, that only one of them, the English major, had staked out her field of study squarely in the humanities.
The rest are undergoing what he'd call, again ruefully, vocational training; even the scientists and the psychologists, whose education is in fact called training, are on clearly defined job tracks.
Mood I was in while I was teaching the course, though, I might have snapped back at him, So what?
I 'm still in that mood, though not I'm not feeling as snappish.
What does it matter what they're majors are if they're finding ways to be humanists along with any professional and material gain they're expecting from their very expensive educations? If Klinkenborg had sat in on the class---and he'd have been more than welcome---I'd have bet he'd have had a hard time identifying each student's individual major. They'd have all sounded like what they were, at least for those three hours on Wednesday afternoons, intelligent, well-read, knowledgeable, and critically astute writers and readers.
Ok, maybe he'd have picked out the English major. Her range of reference was a little wider than the other's.
And he might have guessed the physics major by her interest in process over ordinary description and her fondness for abstraction which she dealt with in carefully constucted metaphors and painstakingly rendered imagery. But I think if , just to mess with him, I'd mentioned beforehand that there was a poet in the class, he'd have pointed to her. And, of course, he'd have been right.
Beyond this, there's something familiar about Klinkenborg's lament.
A hundred years ago when I was fresh out of grad school and beginning my career teaching college it was a real concern among academics in the humanities, and the sciences, and the social sciences, that students were arriving on campus unread and as terrible writers and muddled thinkers, with little interest in making up for these deficiencies or even the ability to see them as deficiencies. Fewer and fewer students were deciding on liberal arts majors. Few were in college to learn anything other than what would help them get jobs when they graduated; very, very, very few even knew there was anything else to learn in college.
Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind and Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch were major bestsellers at the time.
I have a suspicion it was a concern a thousand years ago when I was an undergrad, I was just too wrapped up in myself to notice. I never thought being an English major made me exceptional. It was just something that made me me, the way their individual majors in theater, art, science, dance, business, education, math, music, and partying made my friends them.
But I was struck one day when I went to one of my professors, whose class was Modern Short Stories, to discuss the paper I was writing and she expressed surprise that I’d chosen to write about “Youth” by Joseph Conrad, that I had liked it at all. She put it on the syllabus every time she taught the course, hoping it meant there’d be at least one story that interested the guys in the class and this was the first time it had worked.
And I also remember that whenever I told people I was majoring in English I was quick to add that I was aiming at a career in journalism or, sometimes, that I was actually pre-law. I thought of myself as pre-famous novelist and playwright but for some reason I felt I had to sound more realistic and practical and that reason was probably that I sensed that most people thought the point of a college degree was it was a ticket to a real job in the real world and I’d have to explain why I was wasting my parents’ money on a ticket to nowhere.
So even way back then, when the world was still young, the humanities must have been in retreat.
Yet here we are, all these eons later, and look at my students!
To which Klinkenborg could shoot back, Just because something is an old concern doesn't mean we should shrug it off, and, Lance, as you pointed out, your students are hardly representative. They came to college already lovers of books and appreciators and practitioners of good writing. They found ways to be both humanists and careerists because they already knew and cared about the lessons to be learned from the humanities, even if they couldn't have put it in those words. Good for them! And lucky for you!
But what about students who need to find their way into the humanities in order to learn that those lessons are even there to learn? How will they be able to do that if the humanities aren't there or have been marginalized or trivialized or vocationalized to the point of apparent irrelevance?
And of course I don't have a good answer to that. Because, now that I’m thinking about it, I agree with him and I’m worrying about it too.
The canon — the books and writers we agree are worth studying — used to seem like a given, an unspoken consensus of sorts. But the canon has always been shifting, and it is now vastly more inclusive than it was 40 years ago. That’s a good thing. What’s less clear now is what we study the canon for and why we choose the tools we employ in doing so.
A technical narrowness, the kind of specialization and theoretical emphasis you might find in a graduate course, has crept into the undergraduate curriculum. That narrowness sometimes reflects the tight focus of a professor’s research, but it can also reflect a persistent doubt about the humanistic enterprise. It often leaves undergraduates wondering, as I know from my conversations with them, just what they’ve been studying and why.
STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.
Steve Kuusisto and I are teaching a class in the fall I'm afraid could be classified as vocational training. We're calling it Public Intellectuals and the Digital Commons but I can't help thinking of it as Blogging for Fun and Profit.
Students will have to create and maintain their own blogs, but there'll be more to it than monitoring their comments sections and obsessing over page views. There'll be an emphasis on critical thinking and reading and writing "across the curriculum."
But the main object is for students to learn to use the internet, particularly social media, to enrich their individual courses of study and begin engaging in their chosen fields on a professional level.
In other words, jobs and grades, baby.
Still should be very interesting. And if these students are anything like my students in the fiction writing workshop---and at least two of them are going to be exactly like students in the workshop---it's going to be a pleasure to teach them.
Two and a half months since our last day of class and I still miss them.
Be sure to read all of Klinkenborg’s editorial, The Decline and Fall of the English Major, at the New York Times.
Our fiction writing workshop had a Facebook page. Still does, although it’s been kind of quiet for the last two months. You’re' welcome to take a look at it and like it if you’re interested.
Note to my fiction writing students, if any of you happen to find your way here: I used two semi-colons in this post, just for you. Let me know if I used them correctly.