Tag Archives: classics

Pleasure Island

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The kids! The boys! They’re all donkeys! – Jiminy Cricket

Beloit College recently released its annual “Mindset List,” the findings of a yearly survey which attempts to take stock of the cultural touchstones that each generation of college freshman is, or is not, familiar with. Most of the observations are benign: “They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it,” for instance. But, predictably, at least one of the observations on the list is distressing to those of us carrying the fire of the Western intellectual tradition. The List claims that “The Biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” ”the writing on the wall,” ”good Samaritan,” and “the promised land” are unknown to most of them.”

Why does it matter if the Class of 2016 is ignorant of the source of these references? Educationally, such unfamiliarity is symptomatic of higher education’s drift, nay, dog-paddle, away from tradition of the Great Books, the time-honored mechanisms for defining and explaining Western thought and virtue, what the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.”  In earlier times, we might have taken hope in the university’s liberal arts tradition to remedy this sort of deficit. Currently, however, there is little hope that the American post-secondary system is doing much to stem the tide of ignorance. 

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What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

The influential website Campusbooks displays a roster of “Popular Classics Textbooks” in fiction. The list offers an aperture into the minds of University English departments:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  4. The Rum Diary by Hunter S.Thompson
  5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  8. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  10.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  11.  Maus by Art Spiegelman
  12.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  13.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R.Tolkien
  14. The Stranger by Albert Camus

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How Much Is Western Civ Valued on Campus?

Not far into an important book published recently is a table displaying results for one question on the North American Academic Study Survey, a poll of professors, administrators, and students administered in 1999.  The survey is the basis for The Still Divided Academy by the late-Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Roessner, and Matthew Roessner, which reviews the results and draws balanced conclusions. 

The table lays out the rate at which four goals were judged by faculty members as “essential” to education.  Here are the results…

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Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

The National Science Foundation has just issued an Info Brief on trends in the awarding of doctorates in different fields for the year 2009. (See here) The report contains data going back to 2009 and breaks the numbers down by Science, Engineering, and “Non-science and engineering,” the latter including Education, Health, Humanities, and Professional Fields. For all fields, doctorates jumped from 41,098 in 1999 to 49,562 in 2009, the vast majority of the increase falling to science (20,601 to 25,836) and engineering (5,330 to 7,634). The “non-sciences and engineering” gained only 925 doctorates, most of that gain due to professional fields (2,172 to 2,800).
The humanities at large, in fact, went down, dropping from 5,036 doctorates in 1999 to 4,667 doctorates in 2009. History went up slightly (960 to 989), but foreign languages slid from 626 doctorates in 1999 to 602 in 2009, while “Letters” (which includes English, Classics, Folklore, Comparative Literature, and Speech) dropped from 1,516 to 1,414. That makes for a four percent decline for foreign languages and a seven percent decline for English et al.
How is that possible, though, given that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the total enrollment of students in degree-granting institutions rose from 14.8 million in 1999 to 18.2 million (estimated) in 2008, a gain of 23 percent? With more students going to college, one would expect more graduates proceeding into PhD programs.
There is another odd trend in place. More undergraduates should mean that colleges and universities would hire more teachers, but here, too, the number of slots for recent PhDs runs in the opposite direction. Each year the Modern Language Association publishes its Job Information List, which provides the fullest listing of openings in the field. Recent doctorates look for tenure-track assistant professor positions in the Job List and apply to those that match their specialty.
For each of the last five years, around 1,400 fresh Letters PhDs and 600 fresh foreign language PhDs have completed school and sought a regular position. In the Letters fields of English and American language and literature, the output averages in the mid-900s. What has the job market looked like to them?
Hyper-competitive. According to the MLA’s “Midyear Report on the 2009-10 MLA Job Information List” (here), from 2005 to 2008 the number of tenure-track assistant professor positions in foreign language ranged from 231 to 267, while assistant profs posts in English ranged from 299 to 474. (English reached a high of 606 in 2000, foreign languages a high of 396 in 2001.)

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An Omen for the Humanities Everywhere?

The news circulating among humanities professors across the country is the decision by SUNY-Albany to close programs in Classics, French, Italian, Russian, and Theatre. (Judaic Studies, too, has been virtually eliminated and journalism will be cut in half.) The general dismay is palpable, but faculty members should prepare for more of the same in the coming years. It’s easy to attribute the decision to bean-counting administrators who don’t respect the humanities, but we should keep in mind how much pressure the leadership at SUNY-Albany must have felt in order to take a drastic step that they knew would evoke indignant protest and piles of bad PR.
The email sent out by President George Philip (reproduced here) spells out the financial state of affairs:

This year’s State Budget reduced the level of State assistance to our campus by nearly $12 million. In fact, over the past three years, the campus has cumulatively suffered more than $33.5 million in State tax support reductions – more than a 30% decline. Since 2008, we have addressed these reductions to our revenue base through the elimination of approximately 200 vacant lines resulting from resignations and retirements, a soft-hiring freeze, reductions in non-personal expenditures and temporary service, reductions in graduate student support, a moratorium on non-essential travel, energy savings, operational efficiencies and more.

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A Fishy Proposal for Albany

George Philip deserves a prominent place in any 2010 academic hall of shame. The SUNY Albany president recently terminated the university’s French, Russian, Italian, Classics, and Theater departments, citing financial concerns. That Albany purports to be a quality university (and is, in fact, one of SUNY’s better branches) makes Philip’s move all the more unjustifiable.
At nytimes.com, Stanley Fish appropriately excoriates Philip’s decision, and astutely analyzes many of the reasons for the situation in which humanities departments currently find themselves. Among them—the decline of core curricula, which Fish notes “has happened in part because progressive academics have argued that traditional disciplinary departments were relics from the past kept artificially alive by outmoded requirements.”
Alas, Fish’s proposed solution to the crisis in the humanities at public universities requires all but ignoring the conduct of the academy over the past generation. He writes, “The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.

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You Don’t Have To Be A Professor

Given that it’s been 30 years since I left graduate studies in English Lit, I don’t spend much time reading up on the field. Still, when I saw the provocative headline, “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind,'” on a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education I knew immediately that this was a piece about the employment woes that Ph.D.’s in the humanities face. The author, William Pannapacker (writing under the pen name Thomas H. Benton), is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He has taken it upon himself to try dissuading a generation of would-be English and other humanities graduate students from wasting years pursuing doctorates unless they have “no need to earn a living for themselves or anyone else, they are rich or connected (or partnered with someone who is), or they are earning a credential for a job they already hold.”
That message, Pannapacker writes, is not something that undergrads are likely to hear from their professors. Asking about job prospects in academe, these students are too often told, “there are always jobs for good people” and “don’t worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available.” Too many of these students find out only too late that professors in the humanities have been telling undergraduates this for years while fewer and fewer who head to graduate programs wind up finding employment that can sustain them. Worse, perhaps, the unemployed Ph.D.s ultimately discover that they aren’t valued in the rest of the job market, that “graduate school in the humanities is a trap” which is “designed that way” by universities who refuse to reduce admissions, even as job prospects go from desperate to whatever is worse than desperate.
As compelling as I found Pannapacker’s pieces, what astonished me the most about them is how little things have changed in 30 years. Virtually everything he says is shockingly similar to the warnings of Darcy O’Brien, a novelist and English professor whose 1979 article, “A Generation of Lost Scholars” in the New York Times magazine observed that, “a profession that traditionally prided itself on its gentility and immunity from the raw practices of the marketplace now finds itself unable to employ more than one in three humanities Ph.D.s.” This was no accident, O’Brien recounted, because even as universities of the day “question their degree programs,” they continued them, while “students, some of them either ignorant or misled, pursue courses of study that may enlighten the mind but will likely lead to unemployment.” More than thirty years ago, O’Brien portrayed this as “a system out of step with social and economic realities” wasting the energies and time of “many of our brightest, most intellectually energetic students.”

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Great Books In Texas

Matthew Levinton, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote us with some encouraging news about a new book club at that school, which he currently serves as President. Read his account:

Last fall at the University of Texas at Austin, a new great books program began its mission to realize Thomas Jefferson’s vision of educating citizens and leaders to understand the meaning of liberty and to exercise it wisely. In the spirit of this charge, the Center’s new book club, which began last spring with a reading of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, was formally organized as the “Jefferson Book Club,” and opened the fall semester with a reading and discussion of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
The book club’s events, which have included the discussion of such things as Leo Strauss’ essay “What is Liberal Education”, will continue with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography when classes resume in the Spring. Plans for the new semester also include readings and discussions of Rousseau, Shakespeare, St. Augustine, Solzhenitsyn, and a viewing of the classic Spartacus. The film event will compliment the Center’s lecture to be held in March on Spartacus by Classical historian Barry Strauss.
Events organized by the Jefferson Book Club serve the Thomas Jefferson Center as an informal gathering place for students and faculty, and provide opportunities for those who realize and appreciate the value of great books to come together and learn from each other. Furthermore, the club has caught the interest of students from outside of the liberal arts as well, and provides individuals from other colleges that may not formally study the great books in class with an opportunity to become involved in discussions that may otherwise be absent from their studies.
The book club is establishing a blog to use for communication among club participants regarding suggestions for readings, and ideas for when discussions may take place. I am serving as the book club’s president, and the process of working with the Center’s directors and faculty to bring the club together, and to help make it something for students to enjoy and learn from has been a very meaningful experience for me. I look forward to our plans for the New Year. When I explain the book club to my professors, or talk with those who are involved with it, they are always very supportive of the club and the opportunity it presents to students to learn from meaningful discussions outside of the classroom. The events held last semester have generated much interest among students and faculty, and I expect the Jefferson Book Club to become a strong part of the great opportunities to learn at the University of Texas at Austin, and I am honored to be a part of it.