THE CURRENT ISSUE OF PMLA landed in my mailbox with a thud. It reminded me again why I worry about the future of language and literature scholarship. The study of languages and literatures is immensely important. But I fear that we scholars are unintentionally undermining the importance of our own work.
The Modern Language Association, publisher of PMLA, is rightly concerned about the status of the scholarly profession. The numbers of US undergraduate majors in English or foreign languages plummeted disastrously in the 1970s. By the beginning of this century the raw numbers had recovered most of their lost ground, and have held steady since. Expressed as a percentage of all undergraduate majors, however, the picture continues to grow worse. Even since 2000, the percentage of US undergraduates majoring in English or foreign languages has dropped from 5.4 to 4.2. Undergraduates majoring in communications, in contrast, have held steady at 4.7%.
The academic profession, partly as a result, has increasingly divided itself into two castes. Elite holders of tenure and tenure track positions cater to undergraduate majors and graduate students. Core requirements courses are relegated to a non-tenure-track proletariat. The MLA has responded by seeking greater support for non-tenure-track faculty. I agree with those efforts, and contribute financially, but I believe they are insufficient. They aim to answer the question: How do we more fairly divide a shrinking pie.
The real question here, the one we scholars must ask ourselves, is this: Why is the pie shrinking in the first place? If we can figure out the answer to that question, more positions will open up for all scholars. Distinctions in the two caste system will diminish without any specific effort. And we can come up with a reasonably good answer. Undergraduates in our utilitarian economy are interested in courses of studies that will help them in their future lives and careers. In my career as a lawyer all my cases have concerned business related litigation, so I have practical experience with both law and business. I’ve trained several generations of young lawyers, and had the opportunity to see how various undergraduate majors affect the lawyers’ further development.
I genuinely believe that studies of languages and literatures are among the most important a young person can undertake if he aims to enhance both his life and his career. Yes, if she intends to become a doctor or engineer she’ll also have to attend to math and science. But in all professions—even science oriented ones—study of language and literature will develop skills essential for success.
If you want to thrive in any career, and have a happy life as well, you must gain the assistance and cooperation of others. But each person has his or her own unique perspective, a perspective shaped by each individual’s own knowledge and experience. If we want to gain the cooperation of others, we must first understand that they have perspectives different from ours. Next we must be sensitive to what those perspectives might be. Languages teach us that ideas and expressions are not universal but partly the products of culture. Literatures teach us about the enormous variation in human perspectives. No one who studies Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s plays can fail to appreciate those variations.
The ability it gives us to transcend our own individual experiences, by the way, is why all educated people should continue throughout their lives to study languages and literatures. Enhancing the quality of our lives should be a lifelong project.
Once we recognize that the people whose help we need have perspectives different from ours, we need to figure out how to persuade them to adopt as theirs the conclusions that we would have them draw. To do that we must learn the forms of rhetoric, the use of language, and the skills to convey our meaning clearly. That learning will usefully be applied to everything we write aimed at achieving a purpose—briefs, memoranda, even emails. And that is learning that study of languages and literatures best teaches. Let’s take just five lines from three well-known poems, all from one language, all from one century:
The world is too much with us, late and soon;
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
In these five lines alone, especially considered in context, we can learn rhetorical technique, the power of words and images to persuade, and the value of plain writing when we seek to convey even complex ideas. Future lawyers and business people could not spend their time more productively than by studying these lines.
If I am right, then, that languages and literatures are so useful, why are undergraduate major enrollments so dismal? I have a theory. We scholars have lost sight of the reason why our scholarship matters. We have increasingly focused on our own diminishing circle of fellow scholars, and have forgotten that if what we do has real meaning, it must also engage the outside world, a world which consists in part of undergraduates seeking useful majors.
Let’s turn to the current issue of PMLA. It’s the one at hand, but they are all similar in these respects. Do we really want to pick it up? Our predecessors fifty years ago looked forward to the next issue. It contained essays among the most important being written, essays which might inform the scholarship of all MLA members, not just specialists in particular fields. Today I fear that even we scholars pick up the PMLA only with a sense of weary resignation. We’ll find in this issue essays on the pianola in 20th Century novels, the 1922 Congress of Paris, and the sporadic late work of Djuna Barnes. Some scholars will be interested in these topics, of course, but do the topics address readers outside three small, discrete circles? Now, there is also an essay concerning Wallace Stevens’s conflicting perspectives, which will interest a broader readership, but on the whole the issue will not dispel anyone’s prior sense of resignation.