The End of the English Teacher?

March 4, 2023

The recent New Yorker article on “The End of the English Major” is grief-inducing for many reasons, one of which might be that perhaps President Joyner was right all along to pursue the ruinous path of program closure she put us on.

Side Point: I don’t really believe that, as Joyner’s canned administrator-speak about national trends, and the demographic cliff, and the SXU brand, and distinctive value, etc. did not take into account our local conditions, our demographics, our market, our traditions, and our record of success in a variety of areas that she chose to disregard.

Whatever. It’s time to move on from Joyner—more on this later. The English major and the humanities might be destined for death—but even if they are, it won’t be an immediate death—and, in the interval, we have an opportunity to reconnoiter with fellow humanists in order to package and promote new versions of our studies that achieve some of the objectives of interdisciplinarity and critical thinking and contextualization in traditions, and … well, all the stuff and values we preach (and truly believe in, and not without cause). The pendulum swing away from the traditional disciplinary categories might swing back leaving some new combinations of categories. We may well create the innovative programs that our administration (along with many other administrations across higher education) has been clamoring for, (despite neglecting to provide support for such developments). The larger forces of the pendulum swing may offer a needed catalyst. Suspicions may arise, perhaps, that, in our (over-)reactions and (over-)adjustments to the phone/social-media/Internet era of the early 21st century, the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

In his New Yorker article, Nathan Heller describes the contemporary moment as a time when, “by most appearances, the appetite for public contemplation of language, identity, historiography, and other longtime concerns of the seminar table is at a peak.” Perhaps the disruptive and seismic shifts in knowledge making and sharing brought on by the smart phone are temporary or transitional, and once we’ve survived the attendant growing pains, we will recover our collective recognition of the value of reading and theorizing about the past as a way of improving our understanding of the present.

The humanities may come back, since, clearly there is an interest in discourse on ethics and culture and art, and when there is an interest in such things, it stands to reason that there is a place for sophistication and beauty and rigor and context for such discussions and the methods of holding them. The pushing ever on in pursuit of a “perfection” is our compulsive nature as language-using humans, right? (I’m looking at you, Kenneth Burke, for flank support in this “perfection motive” argument—all such motivation deriving “naturally” from our condition of being language-using animals.)

But even if the humanities don’t come back, it’s going to take some years for English studies to evaporate at the high school level the way they have evaporated in higher education in the past ten years.

Here’s where I must pivot from the lofty and depressing concerns of the New Yorker article to the local and depressing concerns of restructuring at Saint Xavier University. The current move by our Administration—and by their collaborators in the university’s Department of Education—to relocate all secondary education programs into the Department of Education appears, on its surface to be a rational and defensible course of action, at least to judge by the sobering context of the New Yorker article. If the English major and humanities are dead, why not eliminate disciplinary content requirements for prospective teachers, and simply focus on skill development and pedagogical formation, with, as needed, some nods to subject area expertise?

But this is going too far. My complaint about President Joyner all along was that she exploited a rationale that had a basis in truth and good reasoning, but that she pushed things too far. She took a national trend in higher ed—she fomented attendant fears and insecurities—and, powered by a lot of gibberish and true-believing sycophants and opportunists, she ruthlessly ramrodded an agenda that was equally out of balance as it was self-serving. The bellwether was the elimination of the religious studies and philosophy programs. Prior to the closure of these programs, their faculty made compelling arguments for 1) the programs’ efficiencies in course hour generation; 2) the synergistic support between major and gen ed course offerings; and 3) the value added to brand and mission by supporting majors in areas that provided graduates roles in local, national, and international religious communities, as well as preparation for graduate studies in various humanistic areas. The arguments fell on deaf ears all around—except for Senate which voted down the program closures. Despite Senate’s objection, the Administration could claim, gaslight fashion, that the shared governance box was checked, and the programs were closed under proper authority of the Board of Trustees.

In general, Joyner encouraged an approach to program contraction or closure that resulted in cutting to and through the bone, while maintaining a veneer of compassion by not firing individuals or cutting specific positions (though she did do both). In the post-Joyner period, we can all agree that some contraction was called for—but not the wholesale starving of humanities programs that we have seen.

What I propose for the mid-term transition into whatever the future holds for higher ed, is for all secondary programs to lean into current disciplinary content standards as necessities for compliance with basic teacher preparation requirements. I have been shouting in a well, it seems, about the 2019 move by the State of Illinois to align secondary State standards to national standards. This recognition of professional disciplinary scholarly organizations may be, in the context of the New Yorker article, the last, best gasp of recognized valuation of humanistic knowledge and standards. But in any case, does anyone predict that, in the next generation or so, there will be an abandonment of the more or less traditional education required for teachers at the middle and high school levels? Will there not be a need for teachers—with some version of formation along the lines that we have always provided?

I’m not calling for teacher educators to dig in and insist on perpetuating a version of our studies as they have always existed. Rather, I’m saying there is a strong market and a growing market for secondary teachers in humanities-related disciplines who can adapt their skills-based, or content-based, or Internet-based approaches to the evolving and recurring needs of the teaching of language, culture, and rhetoric.

In preparing disciplinary experts, SXU could take the lead in helping to meet the urgent need for new teachers. The teacher shortage across the nation and in Illinois is reaching crisis status. Just yesterday (3/3/2023), Governor Pritzker announced the Teacher Pipeline Grant, a new package of financial incentives to recruit new teachers to address the chronic shortage that is predicted to worsen in upcoming years. Given the shortage, we may expect an eventual reduction of standards for teacher quality—all the more reason for an institution like SXU to brand itself as distinctive in offering programs that produce the highest quality teachers, who have mastered not only best practices in pedagogy, but also the rigorous standards for content knowledge required by the State and disciplinary professional experts.

At SXU we may not save the humanities across the board. But we have an obligation to preserve the humanities that are foundational to our secondary education programs. It’s not a total answer, and in doing so, we may be swimming against the current of gloomy trends outlined in the New Yorker article. 

But there are other trends: Our record of preparing effective teachers in secondary programs is strong. It will remain strong only if we lean in harder to our tradition of housing our programs in disciplinary areas—something the State of Illinois, finally, has codified in its move to accredit programs according to their alignment to national standards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *