Toward the end of one summer — 1994, to be precise — I arrived at St. Lawrence University as an 18-year-old freshman, excited yet nervous to begin my college career. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer someday, though I didn’t really have an idea of what that would entail or how difficult it would be. I wasn’t particularly anxious about the classes I would be taking — though in hindsight, judging by my grades that first semester, I probably should have been.
No, my concerns were more social in nature. Would I like my roommate? Who would become my friends? Would the people who promised in my high school yearbook that we would be "friends forever" still matter to me, and I to them, by the time we saw each other again at Thanksgiving? Would I finally have sex? The answer to these questions were: Not particularly, a bunch of people, some, and no.
The last answer was the most devastating, to the freshman me, but all in all, that first year of college was a good experience. I read King Lear. I learned from my new female friends that feminists were not, as I had been led to believe, castrating man-haters. I saw my first Kurosawa film. I attended several meetings of the Black Student Union — for the first time, I experienced what it’s like to be the only white person in a room. I was in a play. I perfected my impressions of both R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the B-52’s Fred Schneider, in order to entertain my friends on Friday nights fueled by cheap beer and Boone’s Farm "wine products." I read memoirs and essays by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Piri Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston that created and nourished my interest in creative nonfiction forms.
As that first year came to a close, I was a little stressed by final exams and papers, and somewhat concerned that I’d never get a girlfriend. Mostly, though, I thought college was an exciting, intellectually challenging, and fun place to be, and I knew I didn’t ever want to leave. So, with the exception of a short break due to some health issues, I really didn’t — I went to grad school, eventually earned a Ph.D., and have been employed on college campuses ever since.
I’ve recently returned to my beloved alma mater — which I’ve written about for Inside Higher Edbefore — in order to teach creative writing and literature. This one-year visiting position came along at a time when, to be honest, I had been thinking about getting out of the academy altogether. Although I still loved teaching and writing and developing as a scholar and thinker, I had begun to feel, at the very least, like I did not belong — and could not stay — at the college where I had been working since 2008. There were many reasons for this feeling, but the important point is that I realized that I was unhappy where I was — that this was not the job I thought it would be. Worse still, I began to fear that the problem wasn’t that specific location, but rather that I’m not cut out for this line of work. So I returned to the scene of the crime, the place where I first learned to love literature, writing, and the academic life.
In "Once More to the Lake," E.B. White talks of returning to the lake where his father used to take the family on vacations, this time as a grown man with a son of his own. The essay is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, but kind of funny for his insistence that this place is just as he remembered it, even though he gives a list of things that have changed. "I could tell," he notes after observing the fact that the road leading to the camp was now paved, "that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before....” Or when talking about the nearby store: "Inside, all was as it had been, except...." Or the waitresses who serve them their pie, who were "the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain — the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference — they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair."
Different, but the same. Timeless, yet pushed forward in time. I didn’t really understand White’s disorientation until I returned to St. Lawrence. As White returns to the lake as a father, I’ve returned to St. Lawrence as a professor. He feels, at times, his own father next to him — or perhaps within him, as if he has become his father by bringing his son to this place. I teach in "The Shakespeare Room" in Richardson Hall, dedicated to Emeritus Professor of English Thomas L. Berger, my own Shakespeare professor from 15 years ago, whose blown-up photograph hangs on the wall to my left as I do my best to lead a discussion on Emily Dickinson.
Professor Berger isn’t really beside me, just as White’s father is not with him, yet his presence on that wall reminds me of what type of professor I want to be — erudite, funny, and maybe a little bit intimidating to students who haven’t done the reading.
On days when it’s not too cold — and here in New York’s North Country, those days can be few and far between this time of year — I like to walk around campus. I made a point of showing my wife the dorm I lived in freshman year, where I met the friend who would later ask me to be the godfather to her son. I walked through the building that now houses the theater and fine arts department, but that used to be the student union, where we would occasionally get pizza or burgers at the Northstar Pub, which stopped selling beer after my freshman year but was still called "The Pub" when I graduated. The new student union — located in a more centralized area of campus — houses the Northstar Café, but the students still call it "The Pub" for reasons that are probably a complete mystery to them.
As I was walking home from a poetry reading on campus one night last semester, a student smoking in front of his dorm called out "Dr. Bradley!" and walked toward me in order to talk about class. I haven’t had a cigarette in years, but I almost asked him for one. It seemed like the thing to do. Smoke a cigarette, talk about what you’d been reading. How many times did I do just that with my friends? Those actors and singers and painters and writers who were all so into this world they were just discovering. How many cigarettes did I smoke, talking about Uta Hagen, or Annie Dillard, or Quentin Tarantino? Of course, we smoked inside, back then. It was the '90s. A different era.
White notes that the souvenir counters at the store offer "postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked," which is sometimes how the past seems when we reflect. If I talk of loving college, I should also tell you that I frequently drove myself crazy, putting the finishing touches on a paper at 4:30 when it was due at 5:00, then running around campus with a disk in hand, trying to find an available printer (again, it was the '90s). There were those times, towards the end of the semester, when — out of money on my meal card — I had to eat sandwiches made of generic white bread and processed cheese slices for every meal. And there were the romantic relationships. They all started out fun, but frequently ended with someone crying.
Still, if the experience was sometimes painful, it was also always educational. I wouldn’t want to trade those experiences or forget those lessons — they’ve shaped the writer, teacher, friend, and husband I am today. And something about this experience of being back on this campus has reminded me — and I’m shocked that I needed to be reminded — that my students are having those very same experiences right now. They’re reading something that’s going to change their lives. They’re falling in love. They’re learning not to send e-mails drunk. They’re listening to the Velvet Underground for the very first time. They’re figuring out who they’re going to be as they begin their adult lives.
So much is different. Everything’s the same.
In my previous Inside Higher Ed column, I talked about remembering my own youthful mistakes when I find myself frustrated with my students. I’m glad to have such perspective — it sometimes saves my sanity — but I’m also glad to remember how awesome it was to be young, to be humbled by the realization that there was so much out there to learn. I had lost some of that enthusiasm in the years since my own undergrad days, but being here, seeing and identifying with these students, has caused me to remember. As a 21st-century academic, it’s awfully easy to get nervous and jaded — it seems like every day, someone from outside of the academy is throwing around words and phrases like "strategic dynamism," "innovative disruption" or "paradigm shift" that don’t really mean anything to me except that the speaker or author doesn’t think very highly of the work we do in the academy, or at least the way we do it. I frequently feel embattled or unappreciated, but this year at my old school has reminded me that I didn’t go to grad school to make politicians or business leaders like me. I went because I wanted to help young people have the same life-changing experience I had.
It’s cold here in Canton right now — one day this week, it didn’t even get above zero — but you wouldn’t know it from all the activity happening on campus. There are informational meetings for students interested in studying abroad in the Czech Republic and Thailand. There’s a screening of the film "Argo." The student organization dedicated to environmental activism is having a vegetarian dinner, open to all interested students. There are athletic events. And, of course, there are classes. I’m not saying that these are activities special to St. Lawrence — I’m sure if you work on a college campus, similar stuff is happening around you. But sometimes, I think, the stress of our jobs causes us to forget what an awesome place a vibrant campus can be.
At the end of White’s essay, he talks of feeling "the chill of death" as he watches his son prepare to swim in the rain, but my recent experience with students at my alma mater has reminded me of how powerful it can be, to be surrounded by the warmth of lives that are really just beginning. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few months, but I’m glad for having learned this lesson this year.
William Bradley is visiting assistant professor of English at St. Lawrence University.
France is known for numerous laws that protect workers. But adjuncts who teach at American programs at France have few of these rights, The New York Times reported. As a result, many report that their pay is based only on time in class and that they have few if any rights when they are ill or otherwise unable to work.
In today’s Academic Minute, Paul Macey of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Nursing explains why the symptoms of sleep apnea can be worse for women than for men. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
An event featuring speakers calling for a boycott and other sanctions against Israel took place as scheduled Thursday evening at Brooklyn College, The New York Times reported. Some politicians have called on the college, part of the City University of New York, to call off the event, but the college (with backing from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others) has declined to do so, citing academic freedom. About 150 people held a protest outside the event.
The Nation published the prepared remarks of one of the speakers -- Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. "The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech," she said. "It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about."
This week, in what was billed as a major policy address, Virginian Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader, called for eliminating the research "funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things...."
It is jarring indeed when a ranking national leader in a House of Representatives initially created to reflect the political will of the people proposes to do away with (or redirect, to be accurate) all research support for disciplines — including political science — that are patently basic to the fortunes of democracy and to Americans’ capacity for global leadership.
The only thing more chilling than the actual substance of such a policy proposal is the growing frequency with which similar pronouncements now appear. The fact is that the liberal arts and sciences are under sustained assault from policy leaders at both the federal and state levels. The liberal arts tradition, combined with the can-do strengths of the professions, has provided this country’s competitive advantage from the founding to the present. But indifferent to history, policy leaders seem bent on a voluntary undoing of American strength in studies that are fundamental both to democracy and to the global economy. Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian who helped articulate the integral connections between the liberal arts and democratic freedom, would surely be appalled.
Of course, the assault on the liberal arts tradition does not really extend to science and mathematics fields, even though these fields are an integral part of that tradition. Rather, it is the humanities and several of the social sciences that many public leaders have come to see as irrelevant (or worse) to America’s future. Notwithstanding the dizzying pace of change in the economy, policy leaders seem to imagine that a tighter focus on patently job-related fields of study now in short supply — STEM and selected "career fields" -- can somehow build the full range of skills and knowledge American society will need, as a whole, in the era of global interconnection we’ve already entered.
There is no need, of course, to defund the humanities: federal support has long ago shriveled to a tiny trickle for the entire range of humanities enterprise, history, philosophy, religion, global and cultural studies, languages, literature and more. Yet the global challenges Americans now face make the humanities and social sciences more central than ever before, not less, to our competitive future — as an economy and as a democracy.
How can we possibly imagine that the U.S. can continue to lead in a globally interdependent world when most Americans already know far too little about global histories, cultures, religions, values, or social and political systems — the very subjects that humanities and social sciences scholarship can help us explore? How will Americans usefully contribute to the freedom and well-being of women, children and families around the globe if leaders decide, going forward, that scholarship related to women is a waste of time and money?
In a series of national surveys, employers themselves — the supposed beneficiaries of the intended educational narrowing -- have called for more focus on global knowledge, a goal impossible to achieve if the social sciences and humanities are set aside. Illustrating the shortfalls they already see, employers who were asked to grade recent hires on various desired learning outcomes gave those graduates a failing grade on their global knowledge and understanding.
This nation’s signature tradition of grounding students’ college studies — whatever their major -- in a strong core of liberal arts and sciences inquiry has helped form generations of citizen innovators who, in turn, have made the United States a powerhouse of economic dynamism and creativity. This is the reason Steve Jobs observed so frequently that the "marriage of liberal arts and technology" was a key to Apple’s worldwide success. But strong learning depends on scholarly vitality. If scholarly work in specific fields withers away, there is no way that graduates’ and citizens’ accomplishments in these same areas can flourish.
Ironically, as our leaders work proactively to dismantle the liberal arts tradition in America, leaders of our chief competitors in Asia are embracing it. In Hong Kong, for example, the educational system is being reformed to add “liberal studies” -- meaning the humanities and social sciences — and general education in the arts and sciences at all levels, in the schools and across a university curriculum now expanded from three years to four. Asian policy leaders, it seems, see the value of the liberal arts tradition far more clearly than American policy leaders.
It is time for American leaders — educators and employers alike -- to say plainly and in concert that the current policy assault on the liberal arts is dangerous — dangerous not only to the quality of higher education, but dangerous also for America’s global leadership, for our democracy, and for our economy.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," Thomas Jefferson observed in 1816, "it expects what never was and never will be.” Two years later, in a report of the commissioners for the University of Virginia, Jefferson offered his masterful — and still startlingly relevant in the current context — summary of the goals of education:
To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas … in writing; To improve by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; … to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties … are the objects of education.
If we read this statement carefully, it becomes plain that these goals can only be achieved by an education that centrally includes learning in the social sciences and humanities, including, most certainly, the study of political life and democratic principles.
The notion that our democracy will survive, much less thrive, if we deliberately disinvest in research and learning in core disciplines that are essential both to democratic and to global capacity is a sobering folly indeed.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
One of the most serious problems facing colleges and universities today is that so many students leave before finishing their studies. When students drop out, it is bad for them because they lose huge future career and income potential; bad for the institution they leave because of lost reputation, revenue, and opportunity to make a difference in the students’ lives; and bad for society because of the need for an educated work force that is able to compete in the global marketplace.
Although there are many reasons students drop out, 12 research-validated risk factors, often in various combinations, help account for why most students drop out. These risk factors apply at a wide variety of institutions of higher education. Here are the risk factors and the means to mitigate them.
1. Uneven formal academic knowledge and skills. The most obvious and frequently addressed issue behind dropout is academic background. At many institutions, large numbers of students enter with spotty academic backgrounds, especially in science and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and in writing. Institutions of higher learning need counselors and tutors who seek to remediate deficiencies but also to enrich areas of strength. To pinpoint deficiencies and ensure proper placement, institutions need to move toward tests measuring specific skills and content knowledge and away from reliance on general aptitude tests, which are not very helpful in identifying specific strengths and deficiencies in knowledge and skills. Tests of general academic aptitudes only account, at most, for 25 percent of the variation in academic success in college. It therefore is a mistake to rely on them heavily for placement (or even admissions) decisions in college. In studies my collaborators and I did while I was at Yale University and then at Tufts University, studying diverse students around the country, we found that tests of broader aptitudes (creative and practical as well as analytical) could as much as double prediction of first-year college success.
Neal Schmitt and his colleagues at Michigan State University have found that biographical data significantly enhance prediction of college success. If colleges rely too heavily on general academic aptitude scores in making placement decisions, they risk creating self-fulfilling prophecies dooming students to lesser success.
2. Lack of informal knowledge about being a college student. In any new environment, whether an academic environment or a work environment, one needs to acquire "tacit" knowledge — the informal and often unspoken keys for achieving success in that environment. For example, toward or away from which courses and advisers should one gravitate? Which kinds of student activities become unrewarding time sinks that prevent one from spending adequate time studying? How does one decide upon people with whom to hang out? How do you study for a multiple-choice versus an essay test? In research on college students, Wendy Williams and I found that acquiring informal knowledge -- "learning the ropes" -- is at least as important as learning specific formal content knowledge for success in college. Rick Wagner and I found that those with high academic abilities are not necessarily the ones with high levels of informal knowledge, and vice versa. (Put another way, academic skills are no guarantee of common sense.) Unfortunately, in many cases, the informal knowledge with which one enters college from high school actually transfers negatively to the college environment: For example, a student may believe that the meager amount of studying he did in high school will be adequate in college, when in fact it is not.
3. Inadequate development of self-regulation skills. In high school, one often has a support network to help regulate one’s time and energy. Most important for many students is close supervision by parents or concerned individuals at one’s high school. In college, students often find themselves largely “on their own” for the first time in their lives. Some are able to channel their newly found freedom effectively, but others are not. They may spend too much time on extracurricular activities and too little time on studying, or they simply may channel their study time in ways that are less than effective. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have found that those who lack an autonomous style of self-regulation — who have trouble managing themselves independently — are at risk for lack of success in a number of different kinds of environments. Moreover, Teresa Amabile of Harvard has found that students and others who have been pushed very hard by their parents, teachers, or employers, and who have become used to extrinsic rewards for success, may have trouble motivating themselves intrinsically when immediate extrinsic rewards (parental approval, reward money, extra praise) are no longer readily available. A sufficient intervention should include a detailed analysis of how students spend (and do not spend) their time in order to determine whether their self-regulation is adequate to their needs as a college student. As an example, a tendency toward procrastination can lead students to underperform simply because they did not allow themselves enough time adequately to perform the assignments at hand.
4. Impaired self-efficacy and resilience. Some students come to college uncertain as to whether they have the ability to succeed in their college work. Other students come expecting to succeed, and then receive one or more low marks on college assignments or tests that lead them to question whether they are able to compete, after all. As their self-efficacy fails, their drive to succeed in college goes with it. Studies by Albert Bandura and his colleagues of Stanford University have found that self-efficacy is one of the best positive predictors of success in any working environment. Counselors thus need to ensure not only that students have the knowledge and skills to succeed, but also a mindset whereby they believe in their own potential to succeed. The students need further to understand that many of their peers who have an initial failure end up successful in their fields.
In my own case, I ignominiously failed my first psychology test freshman year (with a score of 3 out of 10 points); nevertheless, 35 years later I served as president of the American Psychological Association. The resilience to get beyond disappointing setbacks is key not only in college but also in work and in life, in general. In my long career as a psychology professor, dean, and provost, I have noticed that many of my graduate-school classmates and later colleagues who never achieved the success for which they hoped lacked not ability to achieve, but rather the resilience to believe in their ability to succeed in the face of disappointing setbacks.
5. A mindset believing in fixed rather than flexible abilities. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that students (and others) typically have one of two mindsets — or folk conceptions — regarding their abilities. What she calls "entity theorists" believe that abilities are largely fixed; on this view, when a student makes a mistake, the student shows a lack of abilities that is potentially very embarrassing. What Dweck calls "incremental theorists," in contrast, believe that abilities are modifiable and flexible and that making mistakes is useful because it helps one to learn and, in general, to grow. Dweck has found that although both kinds of students perform roughly equally well in easy or modestly difficult courses, incremental theorists excel in challenging courses because they are unafraid of extending their skills and making mistakes along the way. Students therefore need to understand that abilities are modifiable, that people learn through their mistakes, and that difficult but manageable challenges are good because they enable one to move ahead in one’s learning.
6. Inability to delay gratification. In many college courses, students do not find out until the end whether they have achieved the level of success for which they hoped. They do not find out for four or even more years whether they will indeed get the diploma they hope for. Often, success in a particular course or in college generally seems far off, whereas there are many gratifications to be had instantly, especially in the social domain.
Some students just cannot wait that long. Walter Mischel of Columbia University, when he was at Stanford, performed experiments with young children on their ability to delay gratification — to wait for a larger reward instead of receiving an immediate smaller reward. He found that those individuals who were able to delay gratification performed better academically, many years later when they were of college age, than did children who were unable to delay gratification. In other words, parents and teachers need to work with students to help them realize that many of the best rewards in life are not immediate.
7. Impaired ethical judgment. Many students today do not have the ethical judgment that we who teach in institutions of higher learning would have hoped we would have been able to take for granted. In my own work on ethical reasoning, I have found that many of today’s students do not even view as ethical issues such behaviors as cheating on tests or plagiarizing in papers. For many students, it just has become too easy to take the low road, and given the temptation, they do so. They get caught, with disastrous results for their success and sometimes longevity in college. It therefore is essential that students learn, as soon as they arrive in college, the ethical expectations of the institution. It should not be assumed that they have been taught, or at least, have learned these expectations.
8. Disengagement from the university environment. For many students, a precursor to dropping out is a progressive disengagement from, or failure ever to become engaged in, the university environment. The students simply never connect with, or become disconnected from, the environment, and hence become more and more psychologically distant and even alienated from it. Disengagement, or a failure to engage in the first place, may results from what French sociologist Emile Durkheim and later Harvard sociologist David Reisman referred to as anomie, or a breakdown in the social bonds between the individual and the community. Anomie can be a particular challenge for students whose sociocultural background is distant from that of many others in the college or university. When anomie develops, students may become more and more withdrawn until they literally withdraw from the college or university. Students should be strongly urged to actively engage in at least one extracurricular activity in order to enhance engagement with the university at large. Advisers also need to try to make sure that students stay “connected” and do not start to withdraw from the life of the university.
9. Lack of interest in courses. Often, students enter college and are eager to get on with their required courses. They may load up on distribution requirements or other courses that they need to get out of their way. But Richard Light of Harvard University has found that one of the best predictors of academic adjustment is taking, during the freshman year, at least one course solely because it is interesting, regardless of whether it is required. Students who load up too much on courses that are required but that do not interest them are at greater risk of dropping out simply because they are bored and find no relief.
10. Issues in academic trajectory. Issues in academic trajectory include either uncertain trajectory or a trajectory that is ill-matched to one’s interests or skills. The late Paul Pintrich of the University of Michigan pointed out how important conscious, well-chosen goals are to motivating students to succeed. Students are likely to perform at a higher level when they feel they have some kind of academic "destination" in mind — or at least when they feel that what they are doing will lead to such a trajectory. In some cases, students simply made a poor choice, perhaps because their interests do not match their skills, or perhaps because parents or other authority figures have pushed them into a direction that does not well fit them.
11. Psychological issues. Psychological issues include a diverse range of challenges, such as substance-abuse problems, interpersonal problems with important others, and untreated or nonaccommodated psychological problems, such as learning disabilities, attentional/hyperactivity disorders, autism-spectrum disorders, and so forth. Students entering with such problems should immediately be referred to appropriate counselors and programs. Appropriate programs work. Waiting can be fatal. Such problems are always best handled, obviously, by individuals trained in the diagnosis and treatment of the problems at hand.
12. Financial concerns. I have saved for last the most challenging of the problems we all face when students are at risk for nonretention, namely, financial concerns or anxieties about financial concerns. In the end, some students drop out just because they cannot make college work for themselves financially. The financial needs of students make it imperative that colleges and universities calculate aid needs correctly. Although we know that student debt is a major problem in our society, students who graduate from college will earn, on average, 84 percent more than students who do not, so sometimes avoiding debt is penny-wise but pound-foolish.
At Oklahoma State University, we have attempted systematically to address the problem of dropping out, especially after the first year of college, and to devise solutions that would keep students on track to earn their degrees. We have created a new center — the Learning and Student Success Opportunity (LASSO) Center — which targets students who are at risk for dropping out. All students are eligible for LASSO services, although our particular focus is on students in the first year, where the risk of nonretention is greatest.
Students are identified for LASSO services in one of several ways: (a) self-referral; (b) referral by a professor (easily done through electronic means); or (c) automatic referral either through low G.P.A., uncertainty about career trajectory, or an at-risk admissions profile. We also have other resources, such as a Mathematics Learning Success Center, a Writing Center, and college-based student-success centers, which seek to help students reach their maximum potential. Research-based efforts such as ours can help large numbers of students stay in college who might otherwise drop out.
For the most part, colleges do and should try to retain students rather than usher them out. But there truly are some students who are better counseled out. It may be that college is not, in the end, a good match for them, or that their particular college does not offer them the academic or extracurricular programs they need in order to be a good fit. In my "theory of successful intelligence," I argue that people who are successfully intelligent in their lives often first try to adapt to the environments in which they find themselves; that failing, they may try to shape the environments better to meet their needs; but if that fails as well, they may find their best option is to select another environment that is a better fit to their interests, skills, values, or needs. In the end, whatever our goals as an institution of higher learning, we ought always to be serving the students who entrust their academic careers to us.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education, and George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Ethical Leadership at Oklahoma State University. He is president of the Federation of Associations in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and past president of the American Psychological Association. However, the views expressed in this essay are solely his own.
After yet another joke on "A Prairie Home Companion" about an English major who studies Dickens and ends up at a fast-food restaurant frying chickens, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to write.
You and I go way back. I started listening to you during my undergraduate years as an English major in the mid-'80s and continued while in graduate school in English literature, when making a nice dinner and listening to "Prairie Home" was my Saturday night ritual. I get that you’re joking. I get the whole Midwesterner take down of — and fascination with — cultural sophistication that animates your show. I get that you yourself were an English major. And I get affectionate irony.
I’m afraid, however, that jokes about bitter and unemployed English majors that are already unfortunate in an economy humming along at 4.5 percent unemployment are downright damaging when the unemployment rate is near 8 percent — and some governors, in the name of jobs, are calling for liberal arts heads. Likewise, the most recent annual nationwide survey of the attitudes of college freshmen reported an all-time high in the number of students who said that "to be able to get a better job" (87.9 percent) and "to be able to make more money" (74.6 percent) were "very important" reasons to go to college. Not surprisingly, the same survey reported that the most popular majors were the most directly vocational: business, the health professions, and engineering (biology was also among the most popular).
The truth, however, is that reports of the deadliness of English to a successful career are greatly exaggerated. According to one major study produced by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the median income for English majors with a bachelor’s but no additional degree is $48,000. This figure is just slightly lower than that for bachelor’s degree holders in biology ($50,000), and slightly higher than for those in molecular biology or physiology (both $45,000). It’s the same for students who received their bachelor’s in public policy or criminology (both $48,000), slightly lower than for those who received their bachelor’s in criminal justice and fire protection ($50,000) and slightly higher than for those who received it in psychology ($45,000).
Another study by the same center paints a similar picture with respect to unemployment. In this study, the average unemployment rate for recent B.A. holders (ages 22-26) over the years 2009-10 was 8.9 percent; for English it was 9.2 percent. Both rates are higher than we would wish, but their marginal difference is dwarfed by that between the average for holders of the B.A. and that of high school graduates, whose unemployment rate during the same period was 22.9 percent (also too high).
Of course, majors in engineering and technology, health, and business often have higher salary averages, between $60,000 (for general business) and $120,000 (for petroleum engineering) and marginally lower unemployment rates, especially for newly minted B.A.s. But there’s nothing reckless about majoring in English compared to many other popular majors. Students who love business or engineering, or who are good at them and simply want to earn the highest possible income, make reasonable choices to pursue study in these fields. But students who want to major in English and are good at it should not believe that they are sacrificing a livelihood to pursue their loves. And students who don’t love what they are learning are less likely to be successful.
Because this kind of information is readily available, it makes me wonder why you, Garrison — and you’re not alone — continue to dump on English as a major. I think it must be because in the world of Lake Wobegon the English major has cultural pretensions that need to be punished with loneliness and unemployment. Likewise, the Midwesterner in you can’t believe that anyone who gets to do these things that you yourself love so much — revel in the pleasures of language and stories — could also be rewarded with a decent job.
Garrison, when it comes to English majors, let your inner Midwesterner go. You can study English and not be a snob. And you can study English and not fail in the world. I know you know these things; you’ve lived them. So my plea to you, Garrison, is this. Your "Writer’s Almanac" does a terrific job promoting the love of language and the study of English. But in my media market it plays at 6:35 am. Even where it gets better play, it has nowhere near the prominence of "A Prairie Home Companion." Can you find a way on the latter to tell stories about English majors that don’t involve failure? These stories would make a fresh alternative on your show to a joke way past its sell-by date. And they might make a few parents less likely to discourage their kids from studying English.
And here’s my final plea to all former English majors. "A Prairie Home Companion" can help, but English also needs its "CSI" or "Numb3rs." I know some of you are out there now writing for television and film. I admit it will take some creative chops to develop stories about English study that are as glamorous and engaging as crime drama. But you were an English major. I know you can do it. And it’s time to pay it forward.
Chair, English Department
George Mason University
P.S. to all former English majors: Since writing this letter I’ve learned about a new Fox TV show called "The Following" that features an English professor. He’s a serial killer who inspires others to kill. Maybe next time the English professor could be the hero? Thanks.