The Enlightenment Happened In School

Nichlolas Bingham, SJU 2009

I am an English major.  There's nothing wrong with this, right?  I mean, I'll get a solid education in the humanities that will stoke little knowledge-coals such as 'strong analytical and writing skills.'  And grammar skills too; people need those, certainly, certainly.  It doesn't look too good when the CEO can't tell the difference between 'their' and 'there.'  No qualms there.  A person with an English major can do many things in any number of fields simply because he or she can think, and imagine, and write (which are all different ways of saying the same thing anyway).  And what about the material itself?  Well, it's entertaining, isn't it?  It's fun to read Shakespeare and Joyce.  Right?  No.  There has to be more than enjoyment, otherwise I'll feel as if I'd be wasting my time.

I want to do something meaningful. If I am serious about changing the world or helping others, commercials, the media, my peers and relatives tell me I should not be an English major.    If I consulted any of those sources about being an English major and enacting some positive change in the world, I'd get a lot of crinkled noses. Some people don't understand how a person could be satisfied with a middle-class income, that a person's paycheck isn't the scorecard to life.  Conspicuous consumption holds sway over many, yet I feel I can do more as an individual than help the economy. And still I hear those voices-the media, peers, and relatives-urge me to become a social worker, an activist, a lawyer (they sometimes help people), a doctor, a civil servant, or a philanthropist (who would get his surplus cash from success in business) in order to make meaningful change.  Reading books or writing them hasn't done anything for the world.  Get a real job, stop living vicariously through books, and get a haircut: that's what those voices tell me.

Therefore, there is no way I could want to be an English professor.  Nope, no way at all.  But, I do.  I shall be one.  I'm gonna hop on that Love Train-people all over the world join hands-to Graduate School.  To clarify, I am going to take another five to six years of my life, and Lord knows how much money, to study literature and theory.  If I play my cards right, being the calculating fellow that I am,  I'll earn a great fellowship or assistantship and get all my grad school tuition remitted, but I'll still be in debt while my fellow graduates will have had that much more time in the workforce, earning cash for a home and retirement.  What persuades me to not do that?  As I said earlier, I like money.  It buys me clothes, and food, and movie tickets, and dinners for pretty ladies, and so on.

I need some kind of justification to forgo all of that lucrative splendor.  I mean, getting tenured as an English professor will help the masses how?  Higher education looks pretty bleak right now anyway.  That societal pressure business seems to have affected people other than just me.  Mark Edmundson, who teaches literature at the University of Virginia, wrote in Harper's Magazine that "university culture, like American culture writ large, is, to put it crudely, ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images."  He says that his students "worry that taking too many chances with their educations will sabotage their future prospects."  I worry about gambling with my future, and since I dedicated myself to the English major, it's felt like a hell of a gamble.  A cold, hard statistic reflects how students follow the most economically sound degree path: the largest number of bachelor degrees conferred in the entire United States in 1997 was in the business field at 221,875 (25%) while English at 49,345 (5.6%) ranked second to last just before Communications (Morgan Table E). In 2006 18.8 percent of the student body at CSBSJU were business majors (11.2% management, 3.3% economics, and 4.3% accounting) and just 8.2 percent humanities majors (3.7% English, 2.4% history, 0.8% philosophy, 1.3% theology ) (Institutional Profile 2006-2007: 26).  To put this in perspective, there were five times more business majors than English ones.  Colleges and University administrations compete for students, and shape their departments to the demands of students.  The business department will be larger than the English, with more teaching positions for business professors than for English professors.  Thus, with my powers of deduction honed by the analytical skills of English major coursework, I deduce that there is a larger economic incentive to major in business than in English.  Second deduction: being an English professor has some of the lowest job prospects in academia.  What the hell am I doing?

Here are some reasons why people learn this English stuff: to round out their liberal arts education, to complete their core requirements, to avoid science classes, to write well, to enjoy literature, to go to grad school.  I am sorry, but I am not about to dedicate my life to a profession that exists as a means to fill out a checklist of core classes and easy alternatives to science.  I'll be damned if teaching literature is merely a secondary role to teaching real classes, a job to entertain and passively hone writing skills.  Aesthetic beauty and artistic enjoyment come closer to some credible justification for my profession, but it is not nearly enough.  I like the feeling of accomplishment, want to know that I did something by teaching a student about James Joyce, and that the literary theory we used to deconstruct Dubliners opened up a new way of thinking and interpreting society.  And I want to teach students how literature and literary theory matter and will change the way they view the world.  Sister Mara Faulkner said that feminist theory opened her eyes, and that they will never be shut again, and so I feel that Plato had it wrong.  The sun doesn't blind us by comparison to the flickering of fire light on the wall of his cave; it is the professor's lecture which takes the myriad colors of French theorists, dead rhetoricians, and archaic literature, and makes them blaze brighter than the sun.  That blinding light burns an imprint upon the eyes that doesn't falter when the lids are closed.  I want more than helping students understand plot lines and characters, conflict and theme.  I'm greedy.  I ask the question to which I've never heard an answer: "What has studying literature ever done for society?"

Who changes society?  Individuals?  Men in smoke-filled rooms, swirling scotch in crystal tumblers?  No, individuals by themselves have never changed society.  Not once.  I tell you all the secret kept in an iron stockade: ideas taught to the world change the world.  Oh yes, people create the ideas and the ideas need agents to carry them out, even special people with charisma and derring-do.  But the individual not motivated by a great idea is a demagogue cluttering street corners.

Examining the way those ideas move, from a professor to an agent of change, is important.  Who of the greatest men and women of our time has changed the world?  Who has changed America?  How about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?  His civil rights movement directly led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Let's take a close look then at the beliefs of Dr. King.  His beliefs were shaped and in some sense were given to him in college.  His professors presented the material, the ideas, that influenced him.  Two ideas deeply influenced Dr. King, the first being Henry David Thoreau's from the "Essay on Civil Disobedience," which taught him that "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.  The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right" (Smith 89).  True, his essay isn't the idea itself, but it is the artifact which contains it.  I first read "Essay on Civil Disobedience" in a high school English class.  I don't think it stuck as well as it did with Dr. King.  Either through a fault in me or a fault in the teacher who taught it, it etched no imprint on my eyes. Thoreau created this "Essay on Civil Disobedience" and passed it on to the world and history.  This idea, made by a great thinker, passed as an essay down from professor to student, handed down until it reached Dr. King.  An idea not in this cycle has a good chance of dying out, gaining no traction. It sits and waits to be passed on again [1].  The second major idea to influence Dr. King is contained in Mohandas K. Gandhi's book, Satyagraha.  The Satyagraha teaches "ahimsa (nonviolence) as an instrument of supreme courage and strength, not a subterfuge of the weak" (Smith 93).  After encountering this theory at a professor's lecture in grad school, Dr. King wrote, "It was in this Ghandian emphasis of love and non-violence that I discovered the method of social reform that I had been seeking so many months" (Smith 92).  In the truth a professor made understandable to a student Dr. King finds the motivation to act.  Now, I say this not to lump literature with philosophy or literary theory with morality but to demonstrate the causal relationship between idea and professor, professor and student, student and deeds. Yet I must concede that many people and ideas influenced Dr. King.  He was shaped by Christ, Gandhi, Thoreau, Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, Brightman, DeWolf, the Boston University Theological School, and Hegel (Smith 97).  It took all those ideas and all those people working at different moments in time, plus his teachers at Crozer College and the Boston University of Theology, to pass down to Dr. King the ideas to change our society.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964: the fruit of Dr. King.  Dr. King: the fruit of academia.

Some ideas professors teach are their own.  Brightman and DeWolf personally taught Dr. King at Boston University (Smith 96).  The ideas taught in the English department are, of course, written by literary theorists: Derrida, Foucault, de Beauvoir, and Lacan to name a few.  You all know their ideas have many names: New Criticism, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.  These schools of thought that have percolated down to students provide a lens through which we view literature and more broadly the world.  Depending on how well a student understands the theory, the lens will either be blurry or clear, distorted or in proportion.  These theories provide the different questions we must ask to understand the literature, and sometimes literary theory can spark or piggyback off social movements, giving them meaning or fuel.

Feminism and feminist theory draw upon some of the same influential works.  Feminism inspired activism that has directly led to relatively ample amounts of freedom, opportunity, and economic independence for women.  John Stuart Mill published The Subjugation of Women in 1869 which helped set the argument: women are equal to men and deserve the right to vote, an education, a job in any field of their choosing, and independence (Offen 1869).  Before Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote "Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792.  After Mill in 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote her seminal essay "A Room of One's Own" (Lynn 219).  Half a century ago, reading these texts would have been a feminist act.  They pull the reader outside of history and society and say "patriarchy has almost always happened and is always wrong."  And gender theory teaches these principles through the careful study of literature, a mirror of reality or society.  A student reader is caught on a whirlwind of new ways of thinking that requires a change in perspective to read the text differently, under the new lens.  This transition almost always requires a facilitator; because it is difficult to change the way one thinks.  It requires the student to examine what he or she believes on the most fundamental level and to change that, if only for a moment, so that he or she will read the text differently.  It's like asking a person to see the world in different, new colors, and when a student sees things differently, those colors precede new understanding.  A student endowed with new understanding precedes societal change. Some of the greatest proponents of the feminist movement of the 1960s were literary theorists and professors such as Germaine Greer and Kate Millet (Lynn 212).  Their eyes had opened wide and would not shut, and they in turn taught others to open their eyes.  What did they do?  Feminism and feminist theory have directly led to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution which gave women the right to vote, and the enaction of Title IX which helped tear down the "gender-stratified educational system and economy that" kept women out of athletics, sciences, math, and corporate America (Offen 137).

Am I saying that I will emancipate half the world as Dr. King and Feminism did?  No, but I am saying that it would be a privilege to contribute to and teach a discipline that has influenced the world and the students who inhabit it.  As a professor I can write and teach things known by books but not our mass media that exist outside of current thought and memory.  Things, perhaps, sitting, asleep, that will blaze before a few or the many, the colors mediated into white light.  I can show students that theory can change their world: women are in fact as good as men.  Class matters.  Race matters.  Sexuality matters.  History matters.  It all matters and is nuanced and requires a close reading that some issues never, ever get.  Theory is tough though, and gets a much deserved bad rap for excluding the general public.  My job is to make it not so damn opaque, yet I can do one better.  I can try to write for both the academy and the public. At this moment, I see theory as a poorly written series of prepositions and nouns, an archaic model of intellectualism.  We should examine beautiful pieces of literature and write about them with the same attention to style, structure, and beauty while not compromising intellectual rigor and depth.  While doing this, we should simultaneously write for the general reader with rhetorical devices that aid in understanding: metaphor, simile, anecdote, and personification.  Placing a primacy on terminology is useful for those within the discipline because it quickly allows a theorist to very quickly gain a great deal of intellectual ground, but in order for English literature and theory to take a bigger place in the world, the terminology should be either be broken down or abandoned in the name of reaching a wider audience.  For if theorists write only to be understood by other theorists, they inadvertently say that their work holds no benefit for the public, and then the public picks up on this and trivializes the discipline.     

As for academia, society urges me not to become an English professor, "don't devote your life to something other than stimulating our economy," it seems to say.  But, thanks to my English major, I realize that society can speak, and I don't always have to listen.  I can listen to other ideas outside of this time and current history-our literature and theory.  Literature is beautiful, and artistic, and satisfying, yet it is more too.  Both literature and theory represent, inform, and inspire.  Five point six percent?  How many students learn forecast models instead of learning how to think?  I will be an English professor.  Class, please read this, a parting shot from Henry David Thoreau's Journal, 12 May 1857, to me to you:
            How rarely I meet with a man who can be free, even in thought! We live according
            to rule. Some men are bedridden; all, world-ridden. I take my neighbor, an  
            intellectual man, out into the woods and invite him to take a new and absolute view
            of things, to empty clean out of his thoughts all institutions of men and start again;
            but he can't do it, he sticks to his traditions and his crochets.


Works Cited

Edmundson, Mark. "On the Uses of a Liberal Education I. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students." Harpers. 295. 1768 (1997).

"Institutional Profile 2006-2007." Office of Institutional Planning and Research. College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, MN: July 2007.  

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005.

Morgan, Frank B. "Degrees and Other Awards Conferred by Title IV Eligible, Degree-Granting Institutions: 1996-97." Education Statistics Quarterly. Vol 2, Issue 1.

Offen, Karen. "Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach." Signs 14.1 (1988): 119-57.

Smith, Donald H. "An Exegesis of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Social Philosophy." Phylon (1960-) 31.1 (1970): 89-97.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Writings of Henry David Thorea: Journal. Ed. Bradford Torrey.  Boston: Houghton, 1906. 6 Nov 2007.

   [1] Discovering many ideas that had sat dead for a long time was called the Renaissance.