There are so many reasons why not getting a Ph.D. in English is great advice.  My impression, though, is that “the market” in English (literature etc.) isn’t as bad as it is philosophy.  C.J. points to the reason:  There are fewer and fewer required courses the philosophy Ph.D. seems competent to teach, whereas required composition courses are found everywhere.  There is a position open at Berry College in philosophy with 351 applicants.  A position in composition/literature wouldn’t have THAT many.

Now nobody denies that most Ph.D. programs in English and such are in the thrall of a very doctrinaire and “theoretical” leftism.  Look at an MLA program; the APSA program is a lesson in multicultural, methodological, and theoretical diversity by comparison.

Why is that bad for the humanities?  C.J. again hits the nail:  Courses in composition are less and less based on writing about literature.  To make them more interesting and relevant, the focus is more writing on pop culture and popular articles on political issues by public intellectuals.  Students complain about the leftist bias of their professors—and on issues they know the professors don’t necessarily know enough about to be anywhere near experts (feminism, the environment, and so forth).   The ideological professor teaching what he really knows—in this case, literature—often will get beyond trendy opinion and theory in the direction of opening the student to love the text itself, as he (or she) often does.  But  the comp course  too often privileges intellectually trendy opinion about an issue on which any reasonable person would say there’s more than one side (say, being “pro-choice” or what the Bible says about this or that).

So administrators, trustees, and other “stakeholders” tend to identify “the humanities” with the less-than-sensible posturing of the politically correct.  Even Rorty, after all, complained that our theoretical professors are animated too much by a combination of fatalism and idealism that’s rooted in contempt for “bourgeois” life.  But most of students are going to grow up to live, at least in one dimension, pretty bourgeois or middle-class lives.   Why should they pay big bucks for courses with no obvious benefit to them?  The “disruptive” enemies of liberal education can say they have more evidence than ever that humanities can be dispensed with in the names of efficiency and productivity.

And then you can add the opinion of Rorty and Fish and whomever that literature isn’t about discovering the truth about who you are what you’re supposed to do.  It’s just “interesting,” just as truth is “consensual.”  It’s a kind of hobby that’s not worth what our residential colleges now charge.  Students can pursue their hobbies for free on their own time.

Let me emphasize that the perception that composition courses these days are, because of that ideological slanting, worthless is a big-time exaggeration.  I’m not about to diss those being paid so little to undertake such an arduous and time-consuming job.  Plenty of students who learned nothing about writing in high school are being taught to be serviceable essayists.  I wouldn’t dispense with composition courses!  I wish there was more ideological diversity found among those who teach them.  One possible remedy:  You really don’t need a Ph.D in literature to teach composition, and highly literate men and women with advanced training in the other humanities disciplines (including, of course, political philosophy and theology) should be given equal opportunity to teach our young people something about how to write.

Meanwhile, an actual major in ENGLISH, I think, is more marketable than ever.  That is,  a major in the language—its form, its literature, its precise use in particular contexts, and all that.  I know more than one former professor of political philosophy who is now making big bucks (with flexible hours) as an editor.  But even those professors had to take time out to really LEARN the mechanical and stylistic details of our particular language before they could be of much use to employers.  From this view, the way those old NEW CRITICS taught English turns out to be extremely practical.  It goes without saying (if you’re in the spirit of Tocqueville, as I am) that a major in the ENGLISH LANGUAGE  would include at least some Greek and Latin.  Or maybe what could be learned from the Greek and Roman authors—how to express aristocratic distinctions in words—could also be learned from the Southern writers alive to the experience of dispossessed aristocrats.  That kind of precise and elevated expression can’t be learned from the “lit-crit canon” that remains ascendant in so many of our graduate programs.

It goes without saying (again!) that my writing doesn’t reflect the commodious discipline of the major I just described.

 

Articles by Peter Lawler

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