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Monday, October 7, 2013
The Sept. 29 opinion piece in The Roanoke Times “VMI misses the point,” about the Virginia Military Institute English curriculum, itself misses the point.
The continuing speculation about what the institute’s English major contains ignores an essential question — one that has been the subject of articles and editorials published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education and other national news outlets for nearly a decade:
What should an English curriculum for the 21st century look like? This was the basic question that inspired the review of the English curriculum at VMI.
Last month, a local, independent Lexington journalist propagated one of the most persistent misconceptions about changes to the English major by quipping, “Unlike West Point, VMI no longer has a Shakespeare course.”
Well, in fact, we do — in several richly innovative configurations made possible by the flexibility of the new curriculum’s design, one of which, a 300-level seminar on “Power and Politics in Shakespeare,” is being taught this fall.
The curriculum’s central focus on rhetoric, the study of language in all its forms, places literature in rich dialogue with other vital areas of the humanities, including the fine arts and philosophy.
A simple look at the course offerings will reveal that the department’s faculty — including a brilliant, highly qualified cohort hired specifically to support the new curriculum — are also teaching a great many writers besides Shakespeare, many of them working in genres that Shakespeare could never have imagined.
VMI’s new department of English, Rhetoric and Humanistic Studies provides cadets a distinctive liberal education for the world of tomorrow. We are not alone in redefining the English department of old. But VMI is dedicated to creating an academic curriculum that will truly prepare our graduates for leading in the future.
The redesigned English major is progressive and clearly demonstrates that rhetoric and democracy flourish together, and that the citizen-soldiers we prepare must be well-equipped intellectually to do the world’s work.
This debate boils down to a willingness to embrace change. In an interesting coincidence, a special series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week investigates why colleges resist change so fervently, and whether faculty are capable of being agents of change at all.
The redesign of the English major demonstrates the ability to imagine an English studies curriculum that is modern, comprehensive and of the 21st century. In this way, we are modeling for cadets the ability to respond, adapt and lead.
We understand that change does not come easy or casually at a college founded in 1839, and perhaps it shouldn’t.
The English major yielded Jonathan Daniels and a number of other truly great alumni of this institution. But a curriculum that does not reflect contemporary needs, with an eye toward the future, will become increasingly ineffective.
By our own example, we must teach cadets to be thoughtfully and constructively responsive to the world around them.
The underlying goal of our changes to the English major at VMI is to teach cadets to appreciate, reflect upon and communicate the relevance of their ideas in a broad humanistic context. We are moving forward with great energy and enthusiasm.
We invite you to view the VMI English, Rhetoric and Humanistic Studies Department webpage at www.vmi.edu/english.
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