On English Majors and Education
June 24, 2013 | 11:15 am
By Joanna Cabot
Thanks to Mark Coker at Smashwords for first alerting me to this editorial in the New York Times, which has been making the social media rounds.
The author, a former English major and now-teacher, laments that “the teaching of humanities has fallen on hard times.” She attributes this to an increasingly career-focused future workforce that is reluctant to take on educational debt unless it’s for a major that can lead directly to a career, and bemoans that many of the incoming students at her own university lack basic literacy and decent writing skills.
I won’t deny that there does seem to be a softening in standards at universities these days. My alma mater has replaced the first-year survey course with one on writing skills and bumped the actual literature to the second year. Another local university has begun offering classes to student’s parents on how to let them work independently.
Recently, I took a qualification credit at another well-known university and was shocked to find that they had done away with deadlines—they didn’t want to stress people out with such a structure and we could summit the assignments whenever we pleased. When I privately expressed horror to the professor, he confessed that he would be posting a rubric to the course website about a week before he realistically thought the assignment should be submitted, and I could watch for those and time my work accordingly.
I’m not sure if this anecdata supports the theory of “a new and narrowing vocational emphasis” or is simply a manifestation of an increasing softening of the standards at high school level. Maybe it’s helicopter parenting, or the increasing precision of educational testing, which means that more kids than ever are being labelled with special educational needs. But it seems to me that many of the skills teacher Verlyn Klinkenborg bemoans the loss of in that article were once the proper domain of the high school teacher.
When I was in high school, we had an extra year to complete the program. That grade 13 level, the Ontario Academic Credit, was designed to give students an overview of a major subject. If you were a future engineer who was never going to take another English course again, you’d come out of OAC with enough of the canon to call yourself reasonably well-versed. You’d be able to write in a variety of styles and formats and you’d have some understanding of proper academic citation.
Contrast that to a decade later, when my brother was going through the one-year-shorter program. One night, I was making conversation with him about what he was reading in school, and he mentioned that they were “looking at” Shakespeare. Looking at? It turns out that meant ‘watching a movie and reading a graphic novel adaptation.’ I was horried. Using those things in addition to the real play? OK. Using theminstead of it? Not so OK.
Say what you will about what students ‘prefer’ to read; I think preferring should be done on their own time. If this is going to be the only English some of these kids ever get, they should learn the important things. If they don’t, they’ll get to Klinkenborg’s first-year English classes and not know how to write!
I loved my university years and the school (and humanities program) I picked was a great fit for me. But I do think it is a different world now. The Beloved has a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering, and I have to admit that if I were granted the magical powers to pick and choose attributes for our potential future offspring, I would absolutely pick his math brain over my humanities one. There have been times he has envied my ease with language, and at least my French teaching credential is marketably useful.
But I have to admit that, happy as I was with my own experience, if the children in our lives come to us in 20 years and ask us to help them pay for a philosophy degree, that would give me great pause. And it’s not because I don’t value a solid grounding in the humanities, either. I just think that we don’t need university for it. University, given its high cost, really should be for specialized, advanced studies.
A solid grounding in the humanities should be part of everyone’s education, not reserved for an elite few who would have to go into debt to pay for it. If first-year college kids can’t write, that is not the fault of a decline in English majors. It’s the fault of poor high school teachers and an under-ambitious common curriculum when they are young.