Facing My Own Extinction

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Charles Smithson, a character in John Fowles’s 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is a wealthy, idle gentleman who faces the challenge of realizing that he, as a type, is becoming extinct. The novel is set in 1867, and Charles, a devotee of Darwin, considers the recently published On the Origin of Species to be his bible. His social class will cease to exist within a generation, and Charles has both the wisdom to see that he must adapt and the self-awareness to know that he is incapable of it. He is being swept away by evolutionary change but is helpless to change his fate.

I am a college English instructor. This is a bad time for my species — and a bad time for the study of English. In academe, we are witnessing an extinction of fields of study once thought essential. I teach at a private university that has just canceled majors in English, religious studies, philosophy, and music. The English major is becoming the useless gentleman, the Charles Smithson, of the modern university.

My institution is very small, and thus faculty members must be generalists. I teach freshman writing as well as survey courses on British literature and genre courses on fiction and children’s literature. I see my job as acquainting students with writers whom they have not yet encountered, giving them some tools to guide their reading and writing, and then getting out of the way as the texts work their magic. In those Brit-lit surveys, I teach relics of more than one bygone world.

In fact, I just finished teaching Tennyson’s "In Memoriam A.H.H.," a poem that tries to render meaning from grief. The poem moves beyond being a lament on the early death of an individual to grapple with existential issues of sorrow and doubt. One of the most memorable aspects of "In Memoriam" is its response to the "scientific erosion of divinity" aroused by notions of evolution in works such as Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation(1844). Tennyson captures the fears of his time: The world is not the result of direct divine creation and intent, but is instead at the mercy of a frequently cruel, impersonal, and indifferent Nature.

In 1849, the questions raised by evolution can fairly be said to have freaked out millions of people. Within Tennyson’s poem, the speaker’s first insight is bleak enough: Nature doesn’t care about the individual, only the species. The author’s particular friend, whose loss he mourns so deeply, has no significance in the overall scheme of things.

But then the speaker is confronted by a grimmer reality: Nature doesn’t care about anything. Whole species have come and gone from dominance to extinction. We are not special; someday humans, too, will become extinct. There is no divine interventionm and nature is not a kindly mother. All of life is a struggle for existence in the harshest terms.

In the academic struggle for existence, English has lost. This is not specific to my university; English has been weak for a while now. According to the Modern Language Association, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, English accounted for about 7.5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees granted in the United States. By 2004, the MLA reported, only 3.47 percent of college students earned bachelor’s degrees in English.

The belletristic tradition is obsolete, and those who once imparted the art of rhetoric now strive to teach basic literacy. English, once a backbone of the university’s structure, has become a little-used organ with only vestigial value — the appendix of academia.

My university still has one course in "philosophy or literature" as part of its general-education requirements, but some institutions have already eliminated even that slight requirement. Soon the only way English will exist is in the form of freshman writing requirements. On some campuses, that’s already the only way it exists.

Disturbingly, after our English major was eliminated, I discovered in conversations that several of my colleagues didn’t realize that there was a distinction between the freshman-writing program and the English major.

Times change, and institutions of higher education must change along with them. If no one wants to study a particular field, if it’s not filling a niche, it will die a natural death. This is evolution in action. I have no choice but to accept that the vast majority of students at my university don’t want to major in English. They don’t want what I have to offer. Instead, they want degrees in the health sciences.

Of course, my students and their worldviews don’t exist in a vacuum. They live in a culture that tells them in every way that STEM fields are where the money’s at and consequently are the only fields worth studying. They want to know — for the return on the gargantuan investment they and their families have made in a college education — that they will be able to get a well-paid job tied directly to their major.

Once education is viewed as a hoop to be jumped through to get somewhere else, people start assigning value to it in a way that privileges direct connections to prosperity and jobs they can easily see. With no sense that being an English major leads to any job but being an English teacher, students are "voting with their feet," as my provost said when she canceled the major. Social Darwinism speaks of "survival of the fittest," a victim-blaming phrase that has been distorted to justify socially constructed imbalances of wealth and power. If you can’t make it, it’s your own fault — or it’s just nature taking its bloody course.

As someone who knew I wanted to study literature since I was a child, and who viewed higher education as an all-around enriching experience, I’ve felt like a 19th-century relic for my entire adult life. Middle- and working-class people can’t afford to learn just for the inherent value of it.

Like Charles Smithson in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I can see the future and know that I won’t exist in it. I don’t know if I am capable of survival in this new environment. Social Darwinists would say it’s adapt or die, but I don’t know how to adapt to a society that doesn’t want what I hold dear.

The adapters, too, face a predicament: You can adapt only so much before the changes are significant enough that the species itself dies out. The woolly mammoth and the mastodon look a lot like today’s elephants, but they are different things.

I feel about literature the way that Alan Bennett did in his 2004 play, The History Boys: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."

In my classroom, I watch students hold hands with writers all the time.

And not to diminish courses in health sciences, marketing, or communications, but I sometimes think that the most important thinking students do happens in their English classes. I’ve seen light bulbs go off over their heads. I’ve seen the moment when their brains seem to short-circuit — when the possibilities of interpretation, or the interplay of complexities and their implications in a text, are overwhelming. Then they go away and think some more and give me papers full of insight and analysis. I’ve seen English majors born in those classes.

When my class read "In Memoriam A.H.H.," Tennyson’s poetry spoke to them. They discussed their own fears, their losses of faith, or the ways in which they kept it — or found it again.

They also read Wordsworth’s "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," which resonated with these not-quite-adults who feel the "shades of the prison-house begin to close" in on them. I know that their discussion of his phrase "the child is father of the man" will stay with them for life.

They read Arnold’s poem, "Dover Beach," after a madman slaughtered 58 concertgoers, as fires were consuming parts of California, and as Puerto Rico was left to ferment in filth and darkness. The poem was written circa 1851, but it spoke to the fears and despairs of 2017: "the world, which seems/ To lie before us like a land of dreams,/ So various, so beautiful, so new,/ Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain." It gives us a tool for coping.

But this might be the last year I teach any of those texts. That course belongs to a major that has been canceled, and there is no need for 19th-century British poetry in our preprofessional university. I can sneak only so much into freshman writing, where I spend most of my time talking about the importance of a strong thesis.

I might have cried last year if I’d realized that it would be the final time I’d introduce students to the mind of John Donne. It’s hard to face one’s own extinction.

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