Tough times for English majors

December 10, 2012

It’s a tough time to be an English major.

No, not because finals are looming and “The Brothers Karamazov” remains only partially read. In recent weeks, some policy-makers and professional ruminators on educational benchmarks and American competitiveness have said, more or less, that schooling oneself in literature is not quite as valuable as other pursuits in the scholastic bazaar.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that lawmakers in Florida are considering a measure that would freeze tuition for three years for majors in “strategic areas,” and allow rates to keep creeping up, up and up for students whose interests or aptitudes lie outside these “strategic areas.”

Naturally, the majors that students are being none-too-subtly nudged into are those that are, at least in 2012, the hottest in the job market. As The Times stated, “The message from Tallahassee could not be blunter: Give us engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.”

This followed within a week from a story in The Washington Post that English teachers around the country are dropping some works of literature and fiction from their required reading lists in order to satisfy the Common Core State Standards, which call for more reading from “informational” texts. While the creators of the standards insist their directives have been misunderstood, some English teachers say the burden of fulfilling the mandate is falling almost exclusively on their shoulders.

In essence, this means “King Lear” could be left on the shelves in favor of a nonfiction work suggested within the core standards: “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy and Transportation Management.”

Yes, we are sure that perusing an executive order stuffed with legalese will be so much more compelling than a “Call of Duty” video game that it will make students lifelong readers.

Hand-wringing about educational standards and whether American students are keeping up with global competitors is hardly a new phenomenon. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, schools were excoriated for low standards, college curriculums were sliced and diced in best-sellers like “The Closing of the American Mind” and the conventional wisdom had it that the Japanese were going to outlap us and turn us into serfs.

Now, all the books warning about the imminent Japanese hegemon are collecting dust in the remote corners of thrift shops. Sure, our test scores could stand some improvement and there’s always room to rethink how teachers should teach and students should learn. But minimizing the importance of English and other subject areas in the humanities in a mad rush to produce more mathematicians, scientists and engineers reeks of short-sighted panic.

It also ignores how the humanities can unlock the creative potential of students and be a solid foundation for a variety of careers: Filmmaker Martin Scorsese, astronaut Sally Ride, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Michael Eisner, the former CEO of the Walt Disney Co., were all English majors, and they clearly weren’t condemned to a life of penury.

After all, critical thinking and the ability to write and to analyze never go out of fashion.

Studying the snows of Kilimanjaro may be valuable, but so is studying “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”



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