When the Modern Language Association, America’s largest association of English professors, demonstrates a sudden concern for the rising debt level of college students as they did in a recent issue of Inside Higher Education, these sentiments bear closer scrutiny.
Charlotte Allen, contributing editor of Minding the Campus, suggests that the MLA’s call for “Congress, state legislatures and institutes of higher education to calibrate educational costs and student aid in ways that will keep student debt within strict limits,” might indicate that they’re in a state of panic over the fact that English degrees are increasingly worthless in today’s job market. If this situation continues, it might actually put them into the uncomfortable position of being unemployed, and perhaps left to languish at some outpost of Occupy Wall Street.
Of course the MLA’s mention of legislative involvement also indicates that this powerful group might like to “extract massive amounts of money from taxpayers for higher education that, coupled with generous loan-forgiveness programs, would make college essentially free, for the students, that is.”
It is noteworthy to mention in passing that English degrees aren’t what they used to be, and that’s putting it mildly.
Today’s English major is the relic of a more contemplative era when students had time to develop a philosophy of life before the realities of making a living intruded on their personal space. The period of time when the number of English majors soared from 17,000 to 64,000 a year in post World War II America is long gone. Financial goals have replaced philosophical ones, and today less than four percent of students graduate with English degrees, according to Professor William Chace, former president of both Emory and Wesleyan College, who made some astute observations on this topic in The American Scholar.
Professor Chace is well aware that decades of deconstructing and denigrating the study of English has inspired students to seek other majors. Describing the downfall of the English department in old school terms, he observed that “English has become less and less coherent as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly pursuit. Moreover, “English departments have not responded energetically and resourcefully to the situation surrounding them.”
However, Charlotte Allen takes a far more direct approach to this problem. To MLA members worried about their jobs, she says, “I have a suggestion that might help: teach some literature. Teach Goethe and Shakespeare – what they actually say – instead of Marxism, sexism, “intersectionality,” “heterotextuality,” or whatever your pet ideological or fashionable obsession might be.”
That just might create some value for the students’ $200,000 college educations and inspire them to learn something, so you will “worry less about your academic field disappearing under pressure from your college’s cost-cutting administrators.”
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Deborah Lambert writes the Squeaky Chalk column for Accuracy in Academia.
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