An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person." Mark Emundson, Chronicle of Higher EdSo yesterday, on my way into town, I swung through the campus, the sidewalks full of kids coming to college--it's that time of year. Parents, too. One of the kids' moms was with him, looking hardly a year older than her boy, distinguishable only by the way she pointed her cell-phone at Old Main to get a shot. No kid would do that.
They're here, and this emeritus prof is happy not to have to greet them. At the college where I taught, our freshman initiation included--I'm not pulling your leg--a standing ovation from faculty, just exactly what overindulged kids really need. I felt like an enabler. We wanted them to feel wanted--wasn't that sweet? Besides, warm bodies are job security.
Higher ed in flat economic times is perilous, the cost oppressive. Some think professors vastly overpaid, but where I taught, significant salary increases were rare, bonuses non-existent. As the cost of medical care went through the roof, we paid more and more of it; thus real compensation, in the last decade at least, went nowhere. At least we had jobs, right?
Today, professional education is where parents look, students are, and money is. Ye olde college standbys--like the English major--have gone the way class rings, alma maters, and just about anything having to do with things like the Peloponnesian Wars. Kids opt for majors in fields like Leadership--or just about anything that uses the word business as an adjective or noun.
Mark Emundson, an English prof with a knack of making those of us who majored in English or teach it feel like a million bucks, makes a darling argument for English majors in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, an essay so slathered in heavenly sentiment that I can't help but quote. (Pardon the trails of my tears.)
--All students—and I mean all—ought to think seriously about majoring in English. Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being. [Makes the heart sing]
--The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought. [Preach it, brother]
--The businessman prattles about excellence, leadership, partnerships, and productivity. The athlete drones on about the game plan, the coach, one play at a time, and the inestimable blessing of having teammates who make it all possible. The politician pontificates about unity, opportunity, national greatness, and what's in it for the middle class. When such people talk, they are not so much human beings as tape loops. [And that's almost Thoreauvian.]
--Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. [If I didn't see it on the page, I'd have thought it was from the Scriptures, upper-case S.]The trouble with such talk is that it always, always, always turns religious because there's no other way to explain such heavenly blessings. An English major won't make you rich or powerful or shapely, after all--don't know if we've ever had an English-major President. But good Lord, we are gorgeously human. It just can't be explained, only felt. You know. Like grace or something.
You might think that's nuts, but I don't care. And I don't care if it's a dingy argument or Mark Amundson is a couple toads short of a mud hole. Dang it, I think he's right.
--Language, a great poem in and of itself, is all around us. We live in the lap of enormous wonder, but how rarely do most of us look up and smile in gratitude and pleasure? The English major does that all the time.
There, see? Want a life of true fulfillment?--don't major in filthy lucre, major in Faulkner.
I should have yelled something like at that kid along the sidewalk yesterday, should have folded back the top of the Tracker and shouted like an old Testament prophet. "Hey kid, get an English major."
His mother would have had me locked up.
Oh, woe and woe and woe. This world is not my home.