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Monday, October 7, 2013
I am responding to your passionate article published Sept. 29, “VMI misses the point,” in which authors Will Ragland and Sam LaGrone, both Virginia Military Institute graduates (as is my son, a history major), mourned the demise of English literature as a major at VMI.
This move shows the trend in academic priorities: market-driven vs. humanities-based, which is almost always pushed by the administration and/or the board of trustees in search of meeting short-term enrollment goals in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
VMI isn’t alone. It’s happening at other places — also usually quietly. Remember the debacle that bubbled up after quiet maneuvering at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2012? Institutions of higher learning are famous for initiating the moves over the summer, when the faculty and student body are less engaged.
The decisions are difficult. Higher education is expensive, and government funding is shrinking.
Speaking specifically to the demise of the literature emphasis in favor of rhetoric at VMI, how desperately dry and boring to ignore the heart and soul of the discipline. It’s dry meat with no gravy.
Rhetoric has its virtues, to be sure, and needs to be a part of the English major — I’ve seen job applications tossed aside because of grammatical errors or poor writing skills. But rhetoric tells you nothing of the shared human spirit; it cannot transport you to other times and places to see the world through the eyes of others; it cannot teach you to think critically; it cannot move your soul.
My discipline, art history, and other liberal and fine arts disciplines are scorned by corporate gurus as useless — yet I get a steady stream of postcards and emails from students studying abroad and from alumnae who feel compelled to share those revelatory moments.
A colleague in English tells of a struggling, underprepared student (and they abound at the best of institutions, thanks to the pressure for high schools to meet the mark with standardized testing) in whom literature suddenly sparked a fire; now she has polished her rhetoric too, and is headed to graduate school.
People remember art, music, theater and literature for a reason: It stays with them, inspires them to think, and transports their very being.
Prisoners of war who sat for years in Vietnamese prisons didn’t pass time doing logarithms or reciting rules of grammar. I recall reading testament after testament from former POWs telling how they retained their sanity by reciting poetry and verses from the Bible, and singing; how they drew on the walls with crude implements.
One friend, while an enlisted soldier bedridden in a hospital in Vietnam, had his life changed by reading “Pride and Prejudice,” casually tossed to him by a nurse. He’d never read a whole book. Now, instead of working in a Cleveland steel mill, he’s a published poet and professor of literature.
So many decisions in education today are made by politicians and business people and not by educators. Why not add professional educators to boards of trustees and listen to their points of view?
I hope that administrators and boards of trustees who wrestle with sacrificing the liberal arts education for job training will pay attention to this plea before irreparable damage is done. Sometimes I feel as if I’m witnessing the re-entry into another Dark Age, and am hopelessly unable to stop it.
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