Reading Rights

Magdalena Waz

According to practically everyone, we are doomed. And by “we,” I mean humanities majors. And by “everyone,” I mean Stanley Fish in an Oct. 11 blog post on the New York Times website. In this column, Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University in Miami, wrote about SUNY Albany and its decision to cut the Russian, Italian, French, classics and theater programs.
Fish cites the lack of general education requirements as a contributor to the dearth of students enrolled in the courses that these departments offer. In previous decades, students at colleges had many more requirements that were thought to produce a more well-rounded student – one that could both count and read.
We still have general education requirements at Lawrence, although I hear that they become more relaxed with each passing year. And I can imagine a college at which some departments will become obsolete because administrators are not marking them as significant anymore.
Here, we do not necessarily have problems with enrollment in courses, but what we do have is an overwhelming pressure to succeed after college. Family members incessantly ask us what exactly we plan on doing with a liberal arts degree. How will we put it to good use?
I used to be exasperated by these questions, explaining that I was in school to learn and not to be trained to make money, which in a sense is still true – but I think that maybe I will need to make money, and my familiarity with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or Fritz Lang’s “M” is not going to cut it, really.
Few people hiring me will see my distribution requirements filled as a sign of how well-rounded I am, and how integral I would be to whatever it is that they are doing.
Often, we counterattack. Questions about our marketability as employees don’t make sense when we’ve already made the decision to attend a teeny liberal arts college on what sometimes feels to be the edge of the universe. And so we agree, it’s a decision we made and one we will have to live with. Something that cannot be undone.
Doesn’t that sort of thinking support Fish’s argument that even the people who contend that the humanities are important for producing well-rounded employees don’t believe their own arguments?
Fish equates the loss of these five programs at a state school in New York with a profound shift in the way we value culture, recommending that we “proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.”
Instead, we shrug our shoulders. We make Facebook groups with titles such as “I majored in English and will live in a box.”
By placing a higher value on our job prospects than on our educations, we are cannibalizing our own interests. We are exposing cracks that lawmakers and the general public can use to deem our majors unnecessary, unproductive and expendable. We need to show people that our degrees are not a waste of time to us because they are, in fact, integral to the workings of our society.