A Response to The New Yorker About Writing and Literature at UNLV

The New Yorker just ran an excellent essay looking at some thorny educational issues: why do so many people go to college today?  Are they getting much out of it?  Should college be different?  The author sympathetically looks at different angles to these issues, and addresses recent ideas and research on them.  At one point, though, to illustrate a section where he debates the value of liberal arts training for vocational majors, for writes:

Still, students pursuing vocational degrees are almost always required to take some liberal-arts courses. Let’s say that you want a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts Management, with a Beverage Management major, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. (Hmm. I might have taken a wrong turn in my education somewhere.) To get this degree, U.N.L.V. requires you to take two courses in English (Composition and World Literature), one course in philosophy, one course in either history or political science, courses in chemistry, mathematics, and economics, and two electives in the arts and humanities. If your professional goal is, let’s say, running the beverage service at the Bellagio, how much effort are you going to put into that class on World Literature?

Since I’ve actually taught World Literature to business majors at UNLV, please let me offer an answer. 

I quite agree with the article that most college students today attend to get credentialed for the job they want.  However, as the author often notes (and truly seems to believe), even the hard-nosed white-collar wannabes filling college today usually come with a kernel of humanistic longing in them.  They may not be very good at it, at first, or even very passionate about it, ultimately, but they do intrinsically understand the seriousness of school, and that part of it requires an immersion in the Great Books.  Students generally get on board with that and do their best to get the most out of it that they can. 

And though the author’s scenario above might sound snarky, most of his work would back that up and demonstrate the value of us, as liberal arts teachers, continuing to fight the good fight.

Consider the author’s own avowed rationale for higher education:

I could have said, “You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” This reflects a different theory of college, a theory that runs like this: In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

Indeed, even the business majors at UNLV are aware of a thing called the Great Conversation, and want to be equipped to participate.  Countless classroom discussions about what we can learn from the classics reinforces this. 

And there are a couple of great paragraphs about rigorous reading and writing expectations being crucial for the kind of overall academic success that’s often lacking nationwide in college.  

First of all, students who are better prepared academically for college not only do better when they get to college; they improve more markedly while they’re there. And students who take courses requiring them to write more than twenty pages a semester and to read more than forty pages a week show greater improvement.

“I have come to think,” he says, “that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.” This makes sense. If you read a lot of sentences, then you start to think in sentences, and if you think in sentences, then you can write sentences, because you know what a sentence sounds like. Someone who has reached the age of eighteen or twenty and has never been a reader is not going to become a writer in fifteen weeks. On the other hand, it’s not a bad thing for such a person to see what caring about “things that probably aren’t that exciting to most people” looks like. A lot of teaching is modelling.

Certainly, such things should encourage us to keep polishing these diamonds in the rough as much as we can.  Because diamonds they doubtless are. 

Even the business majors at UNLV. 


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