Timesman mourns the decline in English majors!

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 26, 2013

Fails to review their past efforts: This Sunday, we were struck by Verlyn Klinkenborg’s lament for the English major.

Klinkenborg teaches non-fiction writing. He seems like a good, genial person. Despite these facts, he has been part of the New York Times editorial board since 1997.

In a way, that affiliation was the source of our puzzlement.

In this weekend’s Sunday Review, Klinkenborg offered a well-written lament for the dwindling English major. As it turns out, the English major is going the way of all flesh:
KLINKENBORG (6/23/13): 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.
Today, there are fewer English majors. For ourselves, we majored in philosophy, with an emphasis on reading the same three pages over and over and over.

The English major is going away. As Klinkenborg lamented the loss, we asked ourselves where he has been as a New York Timesman over the past twenty years:
KLINKENBORG: What many undergraduates do not know—and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them—is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing—the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it—no matter how or when it was acquired—knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.
In theory, these comments make sense. Then we remembered the world.

Klinkenborg! When you review our degraded press culture, you are looking at the work of the English majors! To cite one prominent example, the “Creeping Dowdism” against which we were warned came to us straight outta the English department.

Every four years, the Democratic nominee reminds its inventor of Mr. Darcy. Other than that, she makes her shit up. And the school of “thought” this person invented has helped change the press corps world.

This week, we are observing a startling expression of modern press corps culture. As the pundit corps wastes its time on the sayings of a celebrity chef, the press corps has been driving its themes by simply inventing false facts.

This has gone on at the New York Times, in op-ed columns and news reports. And Klinkenborg and the English majors will say nothing about it.

The open invention of bogus facts is a basic part of modern press culture. Klinkenborg didn’t complain about this practice in the horrible year of 1999. He won’t complain about it today, nor is he likely to notice the fact that facts are being invented.

Klinkenborg seems like a genial person. Beyond that, he knows the right things to say. But what does he tell his eager young students when they ask him, citing examples, about the way he and his guild simply invent bogus facts?

Is that how a true English major would act? Given their well-known high regard for their precious inheritance?

32 comments:

  1. Quaker in a BasementJune 26, 2013 at 4:16 PM

    Klinkenborg! When you review our degraded press culture, you are looking at the work of the English majors!

    Do what now? First you blame Dowd on all us liberals and now you want to make her the fault of English majors?

    To borrow a quote from the collected works of M. Groening: "*I* didn't do it!"

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Somerby Jihad Against College Professors, Part 600,001. And it's always the "genial" professors who crap in his compote.

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  3. Policies have consequences. The burden of college debt and the difficulty of finding a good job didn't just happen. They were unintended side effects of government policies.

    The number of good jobs was unintentionally held down by a number of policies: high federal and state corporate income taxes, failure to build the Keystone pipeline, enormous numbers of federal regulations, burdensome and costly state and local regulations, Health Reform, and an expensive tort liability system to name a few.

    And, the easy availability of student loans inadvertently led to greatly increased tuition. Colleges took advantage of those loans to dramatically raise tuition. After adjusting for inflation, college tuition is 5 times as high as it was in 1960.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, this phenomena is observed in virtually all areas of government spending.

      As soon as "Uncle Sugar" hooks up his pipeline from the Treasury, the money flows at an ever-accelerating rate.

      Ike warned us.

      We didn't take him seriously.

      GAO is supposed to provide oversight, but auditors only report the budget, they can't change it.

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    2. D and C - just too groaningly idiotic

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    3. Quaker in a BasementJune 26, 2013 at 11:14 PM

      English majors working on the pipeline?

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    4. And the greatest factor- outsourcing every job that could be outsourced over a generation for the purpose of exploiting cheap third world labor. Not to mention the wealth squandered on bloated military budgets and foreign misadventures.

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    5. "The burden of college debt and the difficulty of finding a good job didn't just happen. They were unintended side effects of government policies.

      The number of good jobs was unintentionally held down by a number of policies: high federal and state corporate income taxes, failure to build the Keystone pipeline, enormous numbers of federal regulations, burdensome and costly state and local regulations, Health Reform, and an expensive tort liability system to name a few."

      This is just so stupid and dogmatic it makes real engagement impossible. That list of grievances is the standard conservative list of "What's wrong with everything". But it makes me wonder what his goal is in posting these tired talking points day after day. What kind of engagement is he hoping for. Is he a paid troll? WTF?

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    6. This may be hard to believe, but attending college was quite affordable back in the late 1960s. I went to a state university for four years and earned a degree at a cost of only about $8,000. But I earned about 85% of these costs (dorm rents included) holding a 20-hour-a-week job during the school year and working full time in a factory during the summer. Of course, back then government subsidized higher education more than today because a majority of Americans were scared we were falling behind the Soviet Union. After all, they successfully launched several satellites before we succeeded. Even Vice President Nixon delivered speeches demanding more subsidies for education. But the end of such subsidies began in 1968 when the California Governor Ronald Reagan, angered at students protesting against the Vietnam War, decided to punish the "unwashed hordes" by reducing state subsidies, forcing tuitions to rise. At my college, the protesters were from higher-income families where Dad picked up 100% of the tuition, giving these kids more time to explore all things hippie. The resulting hikes over the years made it harder for kids to work their way through college and pushed many into the loan programs that leave them in debt for years. But what jobs can college age kids get. Again I benefited from President Johnson who asked the labor unions to allow students to take jobs at their factories for less than the union-negotiated beginning wage. I earned at my summer job 60 cents per hour less than the union-negotiated starting wage but 50 cents an hour over the federal minimum wage. Today students are lucky to get minimum wage at fast food outlets and summer interns are now expected to work for free to get experience in fetching coffee.

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  4. Isn't there a difference between English majors and Journalism majors? I'd expect many English majors to be very good at making things up. It's a central feature of The Novel form, which figures so prominently in the study of English. Now for a wannabe novelist to cross over into Journalism to write fiction where fact should be... that is a crime!

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    Replies
    1. Quaker in a BasementJune 26, 2013 at 11:13 PM

      Yes, there's some difference, but not a whole lot. I can tell you that way back in my college days, I flipped between the two programs without losing much time.

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  5. Quaker in a Basement's opening comment: yes.

    How strange this whole conversation (here and in many other venues) about the decline of the humanities. Do math or econ or polisci or the various (very different from one another) sciences have to justify themselves in the way the humanities are being asked to do? No, not really. It's taken for granted that the jobs (supposedly) available to majors in those "practical" fields justify those fields of study. Really? That simple? Then let businesses pay for the job training, the way apprentice tradesmen are paid, if it's all that simple. Why should the state (i.e., taxpayers), or private colleges (i.e., philanthropists), have to bear the costs? Not to mention the students themselves, with horrendous loans (or have we returned to indentured servitude)?

    I would hazard that Bob S's skills at parsing the journalistic terrain owe more than a little to his having spent many hours on just a few pages of Kant or Kierkegaard. Had he been a person of a different temperment, he might have honed those skills through history course projects or literary analysis, among other possibilities. (I would also hazard that Mr. S. might have profited from a little more historical or literary indulgence -- imagining other worlds and "what if's" -- learning to inhabit other worlds easily rather than in his laborious way.)

    How to measure? OMG, if we can't measure it precisely, it can't be real! It's not really happening!

    About 20 years ago, I got chatting with the young man laying carpet in my house. He was fascinated by my being a college professor and wanted to talk about the novel he'd just been reading, the habit of reading being something he'd picked up in the hurry-up-and-wait world of the military (he was a Marine who'd served in Somalia -- a rather fraught place then for Marines). Memories of my conversation with him (his eagerness, his innocent, curious, wondrous and wonderful thirst) sustain me when I sometimes get bored with my own full-time liberal arts students (wonderful as they are), or when I find myself wondering what the hell my lifetime's commitment to the humanities has been all about. With all this young man had already seen, what reading literature meant to him for what he might still see, understand, imagine....

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  6. It boggles my mind that students at Pomona are majoring in economics and math in order to find employment. Because I have a BA in math and an MA in economics and I have spent the last 11 years working as a janitor. If those two degrees are worth more than the toilet paper they could have been written on, that is news to me.

    The other thing that really boggles my mind is that Pomona, a town of 943 people in Franklin County even HAS a University.

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    Replies
    1. Pomona College is in Claremont, CA

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    2. The first commenter's confusion between city and college suggest a degree in geography may have been more helpful in finding a better job or negotiating the hallways in the one he now has.

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  7. "For ourselves, we majored in philosophy, with an emphasis on reading the same three pages over and over and over."
    ============
    Brilliant line.

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    Replies
    1. agreed, that is really funny

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