In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: "So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?" I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.via Arts & Letters Daily
They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:
Those answers defied everything they had been taught in my theory seminar. Nevertheless, they were all, in different degrees, the answers I would have given as an undergraduate. They reflected the drive toward imaginative freedom expressed by Keating, but they also reflected a deep traditionalism that is equally crucial to English as a discipline. Both impulses, however, are intractably emotional, irrational, and romantic.
- Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
- Feelings of alienation from one's peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
- A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
- A "geeky" attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
- Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one's special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.
- A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired "transcendence."
- A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.
- A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.
- A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.
- A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.
- A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.
- An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.
- A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.
Not one student said, I am studying English "because I want to make a lot of money" or "because my parents made me."
English is, almost always, a freely chosen major — and sometimes it is chosen in spite of parental and material resistance. English is a rebellious major, even as it draws on a tradition deeper than the contemporary American dream of success.
It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects.
When I asked about that, one said, "If I wanted to be a politician, I'd major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I'd major in sociology." English is, among my undergraduates at least, one of the last refuges of the classical notion of a liberal-arts education.
21 July 2006
Ode to English Majors
The Chronicle recently carried a column entitled "Goodbye Mr. Keating [the teacher in Dead Poets' Society]: To succeed as a Ph.D. in English, you have to give up all of the things that attracted you to the subject in the first place." It appealed to me for two reasons. (1) I thoroughly enjoyed my graduate work in linguistics because it involved a lot of fieldwork and language-learning, two achievements that proved unfortunately of no great consequence in pursuing an academic career in linguistics, for which I believe I lacked the necessary temperament. (2) My daughter is scheduled to graduate with a B.A. in English next year and is pondering what to do after that. The pseudonymous author of the Chronicle article, an English professor at a midwestern university, waxes romantic about the qualities of undergraduate English majors, many of which ring true.
Posted by Joel at 7/21/2006 10:11:00 PM