MLA’s Rosemary Feal: “Humanities Required?”


Here’s the story, and it comes from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta:

A National Book Award-level Shakespeare scholar was called to give lectures all over the country.  His chauffeur told him that he had heard one of the talks so many times, he himself could deliver it verbatim.

The scholar took him up on the bet.  One black turtleneck and tweed jacket later, the chauffeur was onstage, and the scholar was dressed as the chauffeur in the audience.  The driver delivered the speech perfectly, verbatim.  Then came the question-and-answer period.

Question:  “Could you explain the difference between the ‘self-fashioning’ you describe and the psychoanalytic concept of masquerade?”

The mike went to the tweed-and-turtlenecked chauffeur.  He paused thoughtfully, or perhaps he merely halted in panic.  “That’s a dumb question,” he finally said.  “In fact, that’s the dumbest question I have ever heard. It’s so dumb, I bet my chauffeur can answer it.”

And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen, as Ken Kesey once said.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, told the story during last Wednesday’s presentation “Humanities Required?”

Feal: Have the Boomers failed us?

It all goes to prove, she said, that the humanities do not just pass on a canon of knowledge or in a vague way teach us how to think – they “also allow us to formulate and debate questions and answers.”

Why the question in her title, then?  According to Feal, the very generation – the Boomers – that had championed the humanities in academia and demanded a greater role for the humanities in the curriculum has now turned the tables.

Boomers are steering their kids towards more utilitarian, career-oriented degrees in law, medicine, business.

What happened? Obviously, the economy has tilted students and parents towards the lucrative degrees that will “pay off.”

However, older students who return to school after careers and family – “Guess what they go study?” she asked. That’s right.  The humanities.

Russell Berman, past president of the MLA, attended the session as Feal’s sidekick (“the chauffeur,” Feal joked) – I interviewed them both for my earlier article here, joined her in noting that language enrollments are up in Arabic and Chinese, as well as the more usual suspects (Spanish, and, surprisingly, Latin) – yet many college language programs have been reduced, closed, or threatened with closure.

Berman: Taking on a hard sell (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Jennifer Summit, an English professor, noted that although the number of English majors is holding steady for the last decade, increasing college enrollments mean that English is dropping as a percentage of all majors. That means the same number of kids to educate with a smaller slice of the resource pie.

Rosemary noted that it’s harder and harder for humanities PhDs to earn a living wage and pay down enormous college loans.

One possible solution: She noted that the M.D. is a four-year-degree; humanities PhDs can take nine years to get the degree.  “It’s not clear why the humanities PhD can’t be a four-year degree.”

“Must the larval monograph be the only form of dissertation?” she asked. New media and collaboration can “revolutionize the whole thing.”

But mostly she and Russell emphasized the need for universal education towards second (or third or fourth) language acquisition.  “It’s a hard sell,” she said, especially in the face of the belief that English is already the universal language all over the world.

Not so, she said, when you travel:  “It’s the boss’ language – not the language of the person you want to talk to.”

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One Response to “MLA’s Rosemary Feal: “Humanities Required?””

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    They can understand us, but we cannot understand them. Now there is a recipe for trouble.