The Chronicle recently carried a column entitled “Goodbye Mr. Keating [the teacher in Dead Poets’ Society]: To succeed as a Ph.D. in English, you have to give up all of the things that attracted you to the subject in the first place.” It appealed to me for two reasons. (1) I thoroughly enjoyed my graduate work in linguistics because it involved a lot of fieldwork and language-learning, two achievements that proved unfortunately of no great consequence in pursuing an academic career in linguistics, for which I believe I lacked the necessary temperament. (2) My daughter is scheduled to graduate with a B.A. in English next year and is pondering what to do after that. The pseudonymous author of the Chronicle article, an English professor at a midwestern university, waxes romantic about the qualities of undergraduate English majors, many of which ring true.
In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: “So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?” I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.
They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:
- Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
- Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
- A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
- A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
- Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one’s special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.
- A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired “transcendence.”
- A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.
- A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.
- A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.
- A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.
- A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.
- An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.
- A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.
Those answers defied everything they had been taught in my theory seminar. Nevertheless, they were all, in different degrees, the answers I would have given as an undergraduate. They reflected the drive toward imaginative freedom expressed by Keating, but they also reflected a deep traditionalism that is equally crucial to English as a discipline. Both impulses, however, are intractably emotional, irrational, and romantic.
Not one student said, I am studying English “because I want to make a lot of money” or “because my parents made me.”
English is, almost always, a freely chosen major — and sometimes it is chosen in spite of parental and material resistance. English is a rebellious major, even as it draws on a tradition deeper than the contemporary American dream of success.
It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects.
When I asked about that, one said, “If I wanted to be a politician, I’d major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I’d major in sociology.” English is, among my undergraduates at least, one of the last refuges of the classical notion of a liberal-arts education.