The executive council of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the leading organization for English and foreign-language professors, issued a statement on Wednesday decrying the rising debt levels of college students. Well, sure, who isn’t against student debt? But I think that the MLA statement is more than just pious boilerplate. It’s a statement of panic–that pretty soon both undergraduates and graduate students in language departments and elsewhere in the humanities are going to realize that their degrees are mostly worthless, especially when financed by mountainous loans. The MLA seems to realize that sometime very soon the bottom is going to fall out of all those English departments with their course offerings in such subjects as “Theorizing Intersectionality” and “Insecure: The Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism.” Students will simply vanish from humanities classrooms (many are leaving already), and departments will implode.
The statement read (I’m quoting from Inside Higher Education): “To reduce debt burdens in the future, we call on Congress, state legislatures, and institutes of higher education to calibrate educational costs and student aid in ways that will keep student debt within strict limits. We also call on them to hold in check tuition increases, which often outpace inflation, and to ensure that degree programs allow for timely completion.” I have no idea what Congress or state legislatures can do to “calibrate educational costs and student aid”–although I suspect that what the MLA really means is to extract massive amounts of money from taxpayers for higher education that, coupled with generous loan-forgiveness programs, would make college essentially free, to the students, that is. But the fear on the part of literature professors who may find themselves out of work is palpable in the MLA statement.
On the one hand, I can sympathize with the humanities scholars, sort of. A liberal-arts curriculum isn’t supposed to be business school. A letter accompanying the statement by Russell Berman, a professor of German and comparative literature at Stanford who serves as president of the MLA, states: “College education has aspired to achieve more than the imparting of instrumental job training by instead building students’ creativity, argumentative rigor, and cognitive flexibility–capacities of the mind that might of course contribute to career success but that do not involve the mastery of specific job-related techniques or the attainment of pre-professional accreditation. That goal remains valid.” Nonetheless, Berman points out that “we [literature professors] face a moral obligation to address the career prospects of our students and the economic pressures they will face.”
All well and good, although Berman doesn’t exactly explain what the professors are supposed to do in order to make majoring in comp lit more appealing to students facing a bottomed-out economy once they have finished their $200,000 educations. I have a suggestion for the literature professors that might help: teach some literature. Teach Goethe and Shakespeare–what they actually say–instead of Marxism, sexism, “intersectionality,” “heterotextuality,” or whatever your pet ideological or fashionable theoretical obsession might be. You might be able to excite your students about what they are reading so much that they will be willing to take a break from all that career preparation. And you will worry less about your academic field disappearing under pressure from your college’s cost-cutting administrators.