A college education must include learning how to read literature. Professors of language and literature teach students how to garner the pleasures, the comforts, and the knowledge contained in books of all languages and times. The news reported in the New York Times today, December 18th, that college teaching positions in literature and language are down by thirty-seven percent is really bad news for everybody. It is bad news for recent PhDs applying for a job for which three hundred to four hundred other applicants are also fighting: only one in hundreds will get that job, and that one position most likely will not be a tenure-track position and may very well be adjunct, meaning without any insurance or stability (a job secured for one semester could disappear by the next).
It is bad for the college humanities programs. Without a cohesive, committed, and long-term faculty across all the fields of history, politics, language, and literature, each department is left to catch as catch can in providing a curriculum that teaches along a planned and coherent, yet original and diverse, continuum of solid intellectual challenges and opportunities. Classes will by necessity become generic and stand-alone without the backbone of a fully committed and compensated faculty. Only a faculty secure in their positions and backed-up by long-term curricular goals and solid scholastic hopes can go to classes and teach their hearts out. Without such teachers, students may never be exposed to the wonders of what books can bring.
Which brings me to the group paying so much and yet getting so much less than they deserve, the college students themselves. For the students entering college now, lower levels of hiring - and even more-reduced levels of hiring for tenure-track positions - means that there will be fewer literature and language classes offered to them, and that those classes that will be taught will not build together toward a goal of enlightenment and enrichment but will instead be nuggets of knowledge to be tossed and tumbled in the baggage of a college education. Literature of all languages, of all genres, and of all ages is the ultimate guide to living well. By denying college kids access to the full range of what has been written and thought about and beautifully rendered for millennia, students are denied their right to live well and happily; to be rich in mind, open in opinion, well-versed in argument, and attuned to all kinds of beauty; and to find in books what generations of well-educated people before them have found: the world.
Students may hold the ultimate power in determining the potential for strong, rich, and committed literature and languages departments. This is a shout-out to all those students (and their parents) making their decisions in the next few months about where they will deposit their two hundred thousand dollars or so in tuition. Make sure that the education you are so dearly paying for delivers what a good college education must: a secure and supported faculty passing on knowledge offered by books from all over the world, from all ages and genres; and through such passage, the opportunity to become a happy, well-rounded, enriched - and educated - adult.
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