College English majors (literature majors) are rare birds today, an endangered species. No surprise, really. They’ve been in a steady decline since they peaked in the mid-60’s, early 70’s. Now they’re in the trough.
It’s the job thing. How are you going to turn English, or any humanities major, into good money? What can you do with it, besides teach? That’s what students were already starting to say in the late 70’s and have been increasingly saying ever since, until that point of view has become like common sense. The value of a college education nowadays is largely viewed in terms of how many more dollars you’ll make with it than without it – and, on a more subtle level, by how much better you’ll feel about yourself when you start making the big bucks.
It seems to matter very little that this prevailing modern message doesn’t square with the wisdom of the ages: with the Socratic dialogues, with the Sermon on the Mount; with Wordsworth (“getting and spending we lay waste our lives”); with Emerson (“things are in the saddle and ride mankind”); with Thoreau (“a man is rich in proportion to what he can afford to leave alone.”)
Times change. It has been my good fortune to have lived a long enough life to compare the present to the 1960’s having actually experienced them. I was a young man in the 60’s, in college, still within my formative years, and building on the 40’s and 50’s when everything didn’t revolve so much around money.
Well, go figure. Back then, kids didn’t grow up watching TV. We had very little screen life, which — after the whole of human history without it — was on the verge of lightning fast becoming the primary shaper of the average human mind. But lucky us who were shaped a little ahead of all that. In the mid-1900’s, the full-blown TV home invasion hadn’t yet happened, hadn’t yet penetrated into the unconscious life, into our central nervous systems. In our youth, and especially in our childhood, we didn’t get bombarded/brainwashed with millions of ads saying buy this, own that, and then you’ll be happy.
In my home, there was no TV until I was eleven, and then through the high-school years and into college, very little. Just one twelve inch black and white screen tucked away in the corner of the living room. One or two channels. Often poor reception. Thus, in the 40’s and 50’s, as a young person I was far less materialistic, less consumeristic than is a young person today.
Even by the 60’s, now a student at Alma College (Michigan), I don’t remember ever having a conversation about “good money” with anybody. Nor about future jobs, in terms of where that good money was to be made. Nor did I overhear any such conversations…. Well, I take that back. When I was a senior, I overheard a guy in the Wright Hall lounge telling a friend about a job he’d been offered, and beaming with pride about the starting pay. ($7200.) It was the unusualness of such talk that perked up my ears. I liked these two fellow students, but remember thinking that how much money you make was a pretty shallow thing to be proud about.
Back then most college kids took it on faith that when our formal education had run its course, there’d be a meaningful next step waiting, typically a job, a profession, and it would pay enough to provide a decent living.
And if it turned out to be teaching, well, what was really wrong with teaching anyway.
For my first year and a half at Alma College, the thought of my becoming a student of literature never crossed my mind. Even in the heyday of the English major, it took a lot of weird, and I think lucky, coincidences for that to happen.
I say “lucky” because, in retrospect, there couldn’t have been a better choice for me, though at the time that was far from obvious. For openers, I went to college to give myself four more years to play sports. How many jocks, then or now, choose to major in literature?
Add to that, I’d been pretty much a non-reader all my life. There were three books in the house in which I grew up. Just three. In retrospect, I see that as an early stroke of good luck: in that there were three; and in that there were only three. Because with no TV, and so few books handy, I was able to experience a period of development reasonably close to what people had been experiencing from the beginning of people: an outward-looking, “doing” kind of life, playing and working.
Often I couldn’t tell the difference between the two. Yeah, picking a few long rows of cucumbers or string beans for my spending money, that could make for a long afternoon. But driving a tractor or throwing down a bale of hay from the hayloft to feed the cows and my horse, Pal — I would hardly call that work. Like Dylan Thomas describes his own childhood in “Fern Hill,” I “was green and carefree, famous among the barns,/ About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,/ In the sun that is young once only,/ Time let me play and be/ Golden in the mercy of his means,/…”
But it was indeed fortunate, too, that there were those three books, and that in the course of my childhood, I read them all: Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, and a red, pocket-sized New Testament that had been handed out free in Sunday School.
I say “fortunate” because they gave me a baseline of meaningful reading experiences to later build upon. Of the three, only the New Testament was over my head, though not so much during the winter that my mother was desperately ill. Then I found solace in it, especially in those passages where Jesus healed the sick. Some nights I found solace in just holding it in my hands.
Life is full of worries, dark places you’d rather not go, or even think about, but under certain circumstances how can you help but not. David, the hero in Kidnapped, was always facing dangers. He’d by hook or crook survive them, but Beth in Little Women didn’t. She died. One can never know when or what troubles may come. Reading a deep book joined you with the author, sometimes in gallant adventure and laughter, but sometimes in life’s darker channels.
As much as possible though, as a kid is wont to do, I cruised along in the shallows the best I could. That hard winter, I spent more time in the barn than the house, doing my chores, or just sitting on my horse Pal, loving her up, or endlessly shooting baskets in the open area between the haylofts, fantasizing about playing sports on the school teams down the line. And, really, how great of society to create schools, to bring all of us kids together, so we could get to know each other on a day to day basis.
The school part of school, of course, could make for a long day, and homework could be a pain in the ass, but by the time high school rolled around, I had learned to study enough –- often just enough — to be eligible to play sports. English classes were the toughest to pass, because ninety percent of the things assigned, like Macbeth, Hamlet, little pieces of Paradise Lost, were way over my head.
But in a slow going English class, that three-book foundation in depth reading that had been laid down in my childhood made possible the occasional surprise moment where some story or poem lit me up. Like Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” or A.E. Houseman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” or Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” (I think that on those somewhat rare occasions, it surprised my teachers too, to see me not only paying attention, but genuinely absorbed.)
And then, in my freshman year at Alma, as more good luck would have it, I had a terrific “Intro to Lit” professor. Mr. Porter was not only lively and interesting, he assigned things that were reasonably easy to read and at the same time as deep as hell, like A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. That was the first full length book since Kidnapped and Little Women that I’d gotten engrossed in.
Mr. Porter was a teacher who knew that that’s where you have to start with most kids, even eighteen-year old kids. Later in life I would discover that there are scores of great easy-to-read and deep-as-hell books with which to start young adults off. One intrinsically rewarding reading experience leads you to hunger for another, and then one day down the road, who knows, you may find yourself reading Hamlet and liking that, too — liking it so much so that’s it’s worth it to plow through the Elizabethan English.
As my sophomore year at Alma was coming to an end, I still had no idea what direction my official studies should take, nor did I really care much about it. My mind was elsewhere, on sports, on girls, not on what I would major in. English had not once crossed my mind. But in that semester, in a second course I was taking with Mr. Porter, we were reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and I found myself so identified with Holden Caulfield’s struggle for his genuine identity that a couple times I wept for him — for myself through him would be more like it. He was having no luck with the girls either. His brother Allie had died. He had failed out of school.
And a couple times I laughed out loud for the wild, crazy situations he would find himself in. One night, reading in my dorm room, the thought came to me: in what other major but literature would I quietly weep or laugh out loud while studying, while doing my homework?
After class the next day, I asked Mr. Porter what he thought about it. Could I make it as an English major? He said he didn’t know why not.
I confessed that his Intro class was the first English class in which I’d ever done even close to well. He said, “yeah, but you play sports. [Mr. Porter always followed the Alma sports teams closely.] You’re active. You’re out there. Lots of minds only start to wake up right about your time in life. Early twenties. Especially guys’ minds. But once a young mind starts waking up, if you give it the right stimulation, you’re on your way.”
Looking back on it from 2021, I was maybe beginning to wake up at that very moment. I can’t remember precisely what Mr. Porter went on to say, but the essence of it was something like this: Look, you’re living in the ‘60’s, very interesting times. The high likelihood is that it will be in this decade in which you’ll finish building your life’s foundation. Your clock will stop in the 60’s, so to speak. The 60’s will be your reference point ever hence.
And that’s pretty close to what it turned out to be. The 60’s and 70’s. I had a lot of waking up to do, and becoming an literature major, a reader in earnest, was a steady stimulation, as Mr. Porter said, to keep me keeping on in that direction.
In time, if you haven’t already guessed, I’d become an English teacher. My first salary offer was somewhere just under $5000. The principal apologized for how low it was, but the way I saw it, it was too high for something like reading and talking about literature — for something that I was already happily doing for nothing.