What is higher education for?
As a 75 year old who attended college for only one semester in 1966 and the husband of a woman who holds a master's degree, I read your post with a combination of sadness and nostalgia. I had always desired to return to school because I loved the idea of academic engagement. Nevertheless I found my "education" down non-formal pathways. Books became my professors and I loved my glued and bound instructors. Today, as a missionary teacher/encourager, I delight in carrying out my calling to encourage front-line pastors and workers in the nations in the spirit and power of Isaiah 50:4. Thank you for your writing!
Thank you for “pulling back the curtain”on higher education. As a professor in a graduate school for over 20 years, your insights ring sadly true to my experience.
Affirmation. Not that I wanted it. Ugh.
Thirty plus years ago I was a college student, and I recall being part of a "discussion" with an adminstrator regarding the latest tuition hike. We were not getting luxuries there at our little camp-like Christian setting in the pines. (The English faculty offices were housed in former WW2 barracks.) But we were told that tuition had to increase so "aid" could increase. Wait! What about students who aren't receiving "aid"? What do they benefit from this arrangement? Why not lower everyone's tuition and then there will be a lower demand for "aid." The adminstrator basically laughed at the argument and tried to tell us how naive we were not to understand "the way the system works." The system doesn't work for anyone but university administrators, and here we are.
The "early college" trend is so sad to me, as are cuts in the humanities. I love your illustration of the liberal arts hallway of doors! Having only an Associates degree in Marketing, I came into truly embracing and furthering my own education late, which began as I homeschooled my children. While I haven't added any formal degrees, I have become a lifelong learner and pursuer of truth, beauty, and goodness. Teachers like you are a treasure!
I feel like the only reason college campuses are so contentious and controversial these days is because people are viewing the telos of a college education as character/worldview formation, and naturally we have differences in opinions on what form these should take. We also have many other avenues of personal formation that are much less expensive--church, the military, volunteering, mentorship, apprenticeship, internships. If the telos of a college education is job training though, I would assume a lot of expenses could be cut and a degree could return to being a stepping stone to a great job once again.
And I say this as very much a school person. I loved all forms of school, but I didn't major in my strongest subjects (reading/writing) because all the scholarships were in STEM. So I majored in an area I had little interest in and ended up running a doggie daycare from my house after I graduated because it turns out I was really good at that lol. The system is pretty broken.
But I like to imagine what a renovated system could look like. We need character formation in the critical young adult stage but we also need to help these kids figure out what jobs would be a natural fit for them. For instance, you know those personality tests that tell you what jobs you may be good at? That would be a helpful starting point for HS graduates. Like, who is telling young people that if they like to argue they'll be good lawyers? It's more like...are you competitive? Are you creative? Are you a natural champion for others? Then you might be a good lawyer. When you tie someone's fundamental characteristics into possible vocations, I bet they'd choose better career paths and show more resilience. I know so many people who paid for degrees they don't even use. :(
This is my first year outside academia too. I think we're going to be okay!
Also, this article regarding my undergrad Alma Matter came across my Facebook feed today. While English is not one of the majors getting the axe, I feel this list is telling and am concerned about the future.
There is so much to say on this subject and how deeply it resonates with me.
Simone Weil said “the intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his large cell.” That quote permeates me deeply, as I was that “intelligent” person in the not too distant past. It’s interesting, for a myriad of reasons, that I would be reading this particular article at this particular time.
I am about 2/3 through reading “The Evangelical Imagine,” which unexpectedly launched me on a spiritual journey like no other (but that’s mostly for a different conversation). (And as a short aside- it inspired me to procure the Norton Annotated version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” the first Norton Critical Edition I’ve purchased in 15 years). It was by slowly reading and meditating on your book that I came to an alarming conclusion. I am quoting myself here, straight from a message to a close friend:
“Where I am now mirrors a different journey of maturity in my non-spiritual life. For a long time, I fashioned myself as smart. It was the one thing I had going for me, and was a point of pride. It’s something I held onto so tightly. All my aspirations revolved around this. My main goal was to eventually be a paid part of academia, the mark I had set in which to say this is how I know I have arrived. Now there were also times when I felt so utterly stupid, but even during those times, way in the back of my mind, I didn’t truly believe it.
But life has a way of humbling us. It became clear I could fashion myself as smart all I wanted, to cleave to this idea, to buy into it’s total all-consuming vanity. Yet at the end of the day, I realized it did not matter how smart I thought I was, how much education I received. It was doing me zero good in life. It got me absolutely nowhere except even more into extreme debt. Which at the end of the day wasn’t smart at all. That’s when it finally started occurring to me perhaps this was idolatry and I was seeking some form of validation I would never achieve. At the same time, I am very eclectic in that I have a wide variety of interests. And the more I started following them, the more I realized that I don’t know everything. In fact, I don’t know much at all. I had been so deceived to revel in all my “knowledge” when it was just a mirage. And this wasn’t another self-deprecating revelation that really deep down I didn’t totally believe. It was a self-actualization moment where I began to realize I had a highly inflated ego and was full of unearned pride.”
From there, I went on to discuss trading that “knowledge” for wisdom, which is where I am finding myself now. To add context, I have been something of a perpetual student, which is amazing in itself, as I am not a good “traditional” student. (The current way of teaching and testing in the American education system is not compatible with how my brain works).
I started out at a private Christian college where I first majored in Psychology followed by a switch to pastoral studies. After getting kicked out several weeks into my second Freshman semester, I ended up at my hometown university that touts itself as a public Ivy. First as a psychology major once again, but later, after much soul searching and long talks with many professors and others in my life, I switched my major to English Literature and that is the undergraduate degree I hold.
After that, I went off to grad school. I did an Individualized Master of Arts program. I set out to study alternative healing modalities but quickly switched to ghosts, as in the the spooky kind, which was really an in-depth academic look at ghost stories. After a key self-revelation I made during that time, I changed again and did my actual work in trauma studies and my thesis on Sex Trafficking in the Social Consciousness.
Upon graduating with my MA, I thought the world would be my oyster. That is, after all, what I had been sold. Turns out it was all lies. I began to flounder vocationally. The longest job tenor of employment I have had so far was 4 years at a LifeWay bookstore before they closed. I had this weird spiritual existential dread that God had somehow forgotten to create me specifically for a purpose. After all, it had been hammered into me my whole life that my walk with God was intertwined with my vocation, even if it be secular, and the way to accomplish this was through higher education. Perhaps that is one of the reasons starting in 8th grade if anyone were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, English Professor would have come flying out of my mouth faster than a car at the Grand Prix. But that was just a pipe dream.
I decided then maybe I just needed to become educated in another field. This led me to starting but never completing degrees in teaching, computer engineering (two different programs at two different schools) and a PhD program in public policy. My friends and family seem to think I have lost my mind at this point, and I don’t think they are far off. The problem is every enrollment led to more crippling and compounding debt. I come from a family of little means and my lot has not much improved. Sorry to say, my student loan debt with far outlive me.
After LifeWay shut down brick and mortar, I failed to really land anywhere vocationally. Nothing seemed to take for me. Finally, after a succession of disastrous jobs, I was unemployed for 10 months (while making finding a new one my full time job during that period, but continuing to come up lacking). Finally, I was able to land a job that is the exact right fit for me, as a social worker. More pointedly, an adoption recruiter for kids in foster care statistically least likely to be adopted. I was hired on my credentials that I had a MA in trauma studies and worked for a time in a group home not long after my graduation. Yet there was still a question that remained.
In all of this, had my English degree served me in any way other than helping me meet the academic requirements for grad school? While those on the outside would quickly offer a robust no, they would be wrong. For all the reasons you list in this article (and more), English is the perfect major for life.
So much of who I am is because of my time spent studying Literature. I gained insight into myself and others. I made friends and family in my time there. It would eventually lead me to finding out who you are, which has in turn sent me on this amazing spirit quest. My life has not turned out as planned by any means. But it has turned out to ultimately exceed expectations positively overall in my perspective thus far (and I can say that after a life rife with pain, heartache, and suffering, but also the overcoming of such).
Timothy Keller once tweeted, “Many times people think if God called you to something, he’s promising you success. He might be calling you to fail to prepare you for something else through the failure.” Reading that was akin to a rhema word for me. I think he should have actually ended the quote with “Selah.” That’s certainly what it caused me to do. And it rings true. Had all my failures not occurred, I would have never ended up where I feel God truly has led me to be. It’s as if He knows me, and the trajectory of my life, even better than I do… This is why I have finally decided it’s time for me to just “trust and obey.” This is just to say, in the ever ringing words of Vestal Goodman, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
Okay, as a penitence for this incredible long, overly personal rant clogging up your comments section, I offer you this article which I couldn’t help but think of while reading yours: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/06/the-end-of-the-english-major
I'm wondering Dr. Prior, what advice you have for someone who is aspiring to be an English professor?
It’s so valuable to consider and discuss the telos of education at all levels! Thanks for this!