Faced with declining literacy skills among college graduates, English professors at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference came up with the same solution to the problem that frat boys in the classic film Animal House arrived at when faced with expulsion: Road Trip.
The MLA convention itself was a road trip for those outside of Washington, D. C.—the site of last year’s meeting. One of the MLA members who made the journey, Annette Korvitz of Tulane, noted that “College literacy studies show that college graduates are less able to read complex texts.”
But rather than look inward at their curricula for a cause and potential remedy, professors at the MLA looked across the sea for a solution and outside the Ivory Tower for a cause. “Professors should have one semester’s experience out of country before hiring,” according to Kathleen Woodward of the University of Washington at Seattle.
Students would benefit for being more peripatetic as well, the professors agreed. “We should be investing in study abroad scholarships,” Tey Diana Rebolledo of the University of New Mexico at Albequerque advised. She did not name a source for the funding “we” would provide.
Ironically, Dr. Rebolledo revealed, “It is harder for students to take courses in Spanish because most students do not have a base or a background in a foreign language.” That linguistic handicap might make international travel problematic, at least in Spanish-speaking countries.
Gustavus Adolphus College is ahead of the curve on junkets. “We have funded ‘Teaching for Social Justice’ trips to Tanzania, Cuba and Ireland,” Professor Eric Eliason, who teaches at GAC, reported. Dr Eliason did not share the Civil Liberties primers that Fidel Castro provided.
When looking for villains, MLA members usually prefer right-wing bad guys, whether they are guilty or not. Thus, Professor Dennis Looney ticked off what he saw as the factors leading to a crisis in higher education and gave one of his least favorite presidents’ top billing:
• “In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and his entourage began to exploit the anti-intellectual impulse in the United States,” Dr. Looney said at the MLA’s panel on the crisis in the Humanities. Dr. Looney is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. (As our friends in the media like to say, “Don’t blame the messenger.” What President Reagan’s Department of Education did was document test scores that had been declining for a decade before his first inaugural.)
• “The economic boom in Asia leaves that region rich in math and science majors,” Dr. Looney said at the MLA conference at the Marriott. “There has been a shift in the center of power.” (This is like blaming rain on wet sidewalks. Both the U. S. Department of Education and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have documented the rigor of quantitative studies abroad, and the laxity of such course offerings at home.)
• “The graying of America is leading to a shift in funding from education to baby boomer’s social security and Medicare,” Dr. Looney says. (As a member of that generation, I feel compelled to offer up a bit of amateur math. The oldest baby boomers turn 60 this year. By law, they cannot collect social security or use Medicare for another two years.)
“University departments succeed when they meet the needs of the external community,” Dr. Looney said. Dr. Woodward agreed, saying, “There is a lack of connection of the academic community to surrounding areas.”
She and her compatriots propose methods of bridging this credibility gap. “In the new economy, our role is not to preserve the old culture but to form a new culture,” Dr. Eliason concludes. Perhaps as a means of doing so, on the professor’s campus, a retired classicist shares floor space in the English department with the women’s studies program.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.