It’s Erasmus Who Prevents Me from Believing in Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories range from explaining, on one end of the spectrum, single events like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK, to, on the other end, unlocking the mysteries to all human power structures and dynamics, as evidenced in the intrigues of globalization, finance, secret societies, and even individual power players who may or may not be coordinated in syndicates of some sort. All conspiracy theories, however, share some assumptions about human potential, control, and intentionality that run counter, I’d argue, to a conception of human agency presented by rhetoricians throughout the ages.

Such were my thoughts as I led my class into a foray of De Copia, the Renaissance textbook on rhetoric by Erasmus of Rotterdam. So I’d like to share a meaty quote from our class textbook,  The Rhetorical Tradition, by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, that provocatively summarizes Erasmus’s influence in a kind of dissoi logoi that certainly leaves us uncertain about a lot of things, including the infallibility of human knowledge and agency:

Erasmus is generally regarded as a key figure in the Renaissance, both as one who brought Italian learning north and as one who made major contributions in his own right. Historian Anthony Grafton and literary scholar Lisa Jardine argue that Erasmus attempted to professionalize humanism as a philological discipline. Applied to sacred texts, such analysis could become a means not only to verbal fluency but also to spiritual insight and piety. On the other hand, rhetorician Thomas O. Sloane sees method in the madness of The Praise of Folly. Sloane argues that Erasmus, through the persona of Folly, identifies himself with the Greek Sophists and their method of exploring arguments through contraries, or dissoi logoi. Sloane maintains that Erasmus saw method as leading ultimately to insight into the fallibility of human knowledge, not to a self-evident world system. If every issue has at least two sides, then one must argue for the most probable. Failing that, one must surrender to folly—that is, give up the idea that reason will provide a definitive answer, and decide on the basis of historically determined constraints and personal circumstances. For most people most of the time, this fallibility of human knowledge requires accepting social conventions, including common beliefs, as the delusions necessary to collective life. For some people at exceptional moments, awareness of this fallibility leads to the rejection of conventional wisdom in favor of a quest for spiritual transcendence that will seem mad to the common folk but that is the only possible antidote to human fallibility. 

The quote on Erasmus sums up my critique of the inadequacy of conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theories are rooted in a belief that there is “a self-evident world system”—evident, that is, if you can uncover it. The knowledge and power of that system are in the hands of the few, but the system is knowable by those who can peel back the obfuscations and train their eyes on what is “really” going on.

My problem with conspiracy theories is the grandeur and control they ascribe to human agency. If there’s a hidden agenda operative somewhere that is the “real cause,” there is as well a belief in human control, capacity, talent, coordination, and the like. There’s the belief that these things not only exist, but that they are determinative (and susceptible to discovery and exposure).

None of this rings true to my own understanding of myself as an agent (one who is relatively intelligent and accomplished) or to groups and individuals I’ve come to know directly and indirectly over the span of the decades of my life. When I look at every accomplishment I’ve achieved, I see as much luck and accident and randomness as I see design and intention and agendas. When I look at my own failings as well as those of others, I see incompetence as a bigger factor, overall, than malevolence. True, there is malevolence—both in me and in others—in certain instances. But I can’t see it as the essential component that a conspiracy designation would suggest it is.

At such times, faced with a continuum where both incompetence and malevolence may be seen as possible keys, I turn to Kenneth Burke, our 20th century Erasmus, to tune the judgment:

The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.  When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. (Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, p. 41)

Rule: So much of what’s wrong with the world is the result of simple sloppiness, ignorance, inability—in a word, mistakenness or error or fallibility. Part of my response to conspiracy theorists is, simply, “It’s Occam’s Razor, man.” Don’t over-complicate things. Or: “The banality of evil.” The simplest explanation is best; when things go wrong it’s usually more ridiculous and ordinary than diabolical and architectonic, a point made poignantly by the coiner of the phrase “banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We needed that book to contextualize one of the most evil episodes of recorded human history as partially on the slope of a “comedy of errors”—i.e., in the complicities of bureaucracies and unthinking individuals and institutions—rather than a cosmic epic tragedy of genuine conspiracy intended and pursued by knowing agents.

This is not to say we should let our guard down and naively deny the cautions that conspiracy theorists provide. The system is rigged in all the ways the critics (not all of whom are conspiracy theorists) have long been identifying. Capitalism, racism, sexism, finance, empire—all operate in both conscious and unconscious ways to consolidate power, subjugate masses, and perpetuate entrenched structures. There are bad actors exploiting privilege and pursuing oppression and dominance. These things operate and thrive in all the contemporary socioeconomic and political structures available to us.

Of course. But if we make the move to accept, as our basic condition and salvation, a submergence into uncertainty, we can (1) forgive a portion of the “intentionality” of the rigged systems, and (2) become persuaded that the whole picture is not controlled by any empowered group or human agent. We can, with Erasmus, come closer to “accepting social conventions, including common beliefs, as the delusions necessary to collective life.” Tempered by the humility implicit in such humanism we can group together and build consensuses with assertions that may not provide definitive answers, but yet enable and support better, newer versions of the common good.

Alumni Appeal to Save SXU’s English Programs

[This letter was written as a plea to former students to solicit support for retaining the English and English Secondary Education majors at SXU.]

Dear Alum:
I hope this letter finds you well. I apologize for reaching out only in a time of need, and I hope you might indulge me by reading my plea to you. I am posting this blog as part of an outreach effort to my past students—so if you know of any friends who attended SXU with you, could you please forward this blog to them?
I am asking for help in saving the English and English Education Programs at SXU. The current leaders in administration have a different vision for the university than those of us who have built our English and humanities programs—specifically, the program you took when you were a student here. 
English, and by extension, English Education, are two of many liberal arts programs that are on the chopping block as the university seeks to restructure itself. Those of us who teach in the programs believe the thinking that has led to this decision is flawed—on many levels. First of all, we feel the quality of our programs makes a strong recommendation for their continuance. On a more pragmatic level, we feel we have had and currently do have enough students across our programs to make them viable. And even more pragmatically, we feel that the urgent societal need for teachers puts us in a position to grow and provide a strong formation for the next generation of English teachers throughout Illinois (and elsewhere). On a less pragmatic level, we believe that some of the traditional values of higher education—an immersion in the humanities, the cultivation of critical thinking, the study and pursuit of “the good life,” are still relevant to society and individuals alike as we face an increasingly uncertain future, one that needs a clearer discernment and appreciation of priorities.

[NOTE: the University is proposing to retain a form of English Education by moving the program over to the Department of Education, but without the English major, the content of the Secondary Education Program will likely be gutted, as the Education department lacks the faculty and resources needed to cover the range of material that our full major has contained.]
We feel that our society needs people who are educated in literature, language, writing, and culture, and that the work we do has value—for our students themselves, for the professions they work in, for their communities—and, for those who have become teachers, for all the students they—you—teach. I’m incredulous that I need to be making this argument. 
But at SXU, administrators are looking at national trends in higher education, and a few powerful people have jumped full force into a view of higher ed that is much more career and skill oriented—not to mention limited in options—than has been true in the past. These trends extend beyond SXU, and the movement away from a traditional liberal arts program is being propelled by many societal factors—including the impact of the Internet/social media; critiques of the expense of higher education; new perspectives on the value of a college degree; changing workplaces as a result of the pandemic; and more.
I hope you had a positive experience as an English or English Education major at SXU. I hope, in the intervening time between your studies here and your current situation, you have had moments of reflection, where a book you read, a paper you wrote, a discussion—in or out of class—prompted some intrigue and growth in your mind. I hope you can summon up the good will to remember the best intentions of your professors in providing formative experiences that stretched you, and helped you think and feel in challenging and supportive and innovative ways.
So here is my plea: Would you be willing to jot down a few words of support—something we can use to help our administrators see that they are being far too extreme in contemplating the elimination of liberal arts majors in English, Spanish, sociology, math, philosophy, and religious studies (for starters)? Please say yes, and, if you feel comfortable doing so, please share your testimonial (it doesn’t have to be long!) by simply posting a comment below in response to this blog entry. If you prefer to send a private message, you can email any of the professors still teaching in the program. I’ve included their names with links to their email addresses below. I also have links to SXU’s administration and Board of Trustees (who will possibly decide on program elimination as soon as its June meeting in a few weeks), and to our founders, the Sisters of Mercy.
I have had a blessed career at SXU as a professor, and my heart is breaking, frankly, when I see the changes we are experiencing—the loss of colleagues, the diminishing support for students, the disinvestment in programs to such an extent whereby the move to close them down completely is just a small sideways step after a long process of being worn down.
Ever the optimist, I hope for a better day, one brought on through action and persuasion—through good use of language and good stories. We have those things, and so, please do what you can, if you feel so motivated, to help us persist and continue our work.
And if you wish to contact me to just chat, please do that too!
Wishing you well–Angelo
Current English Faculty of the Department of Language ad Literature
Angelo Bonadonna
Norman Boyer
John Gutowski
Aisha Karim
Mary Beth Tegan

SXU Administration
SXU Board of Trustees
SXU Provost, Saib Othman

SXU Founders
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
• Conference for Mercy Higher Education (Julia Cavalo, Executive Director)

What’s the Right Number of Faculty?

March 30, 2023

In 1996, when I started at SXU, we had eleven tenured or tenure-track faculty in English. Given the number of English majors at the time—not much more than our current number of 61—the university’s investment in our English programs was significant. It was evidence of a commitment to the liberal arts, to general education, to writing, and to secondary education. Regarding this last item: At the time I was the university’s only full-time, tenure track faculty member who worked as a discipline-based coordinator of a secondary education program. Over the years, secondary education coordinators were appointed in math and history; in other secondary education programs—science, music, art, and Spanish—faculty liaisons were identified, consulted, and made members of the Teacher Education Council, the policy making body of teacher education at SXU. The university had come to recognize—and promote and make investments in—the value of a close coordination of pedagogical and disciplinary knowledge and skills in educating a teacher. 

It wasn’t always a smooth process, as in those early days, my role was something of a peace-maker. Tensions arose between education colleagues and CAS professors, who sometimes seemed aloof and dismissive of pedagogical concerns; to many CAS colleagues the demands made by education faculty for program compliance often seemed arcane and intrusive. Such tensions between shared programs or forced unions among academics with different training and interests are common—though at SXU, the coordination grew into a collegial working relationship, as both sides came to see their mutual existence and efficacy as relying on one another.

I now find myself, once again, the only full-time, tenured/tenure track discipline-based faculty member who identifies his main duty as one of coordinating a CAS department’s secondary education program. I look back on the rise and fall of the university’s commitment to its education programs, as well as its investment in the liberal arts. The deprivations of the current scene leave me convinced there is a more balanced approach available. 

Trends in education, a favorite point of reference for our departing president, are important to study. But they must not be weaponized as “absolutes” to inspire fear and to justify extreme solutions (especially ones that don’t exactly fit our circumstances). We may need to make tough choices, but we need wisdom and information and goodwill to do so.

The problem facing faculty at SXU and elsewhere is that we are not always equipped with the necessary information to make sound choices about resources and investments, and certainly not at a comprehensive, or institutional, level. Even if we had access to detailed financial data (something that was more guaranteed when we had a union and the administration was obliged to share data in many areas), we would lack the expertise, and perhaps the perspective needed for wise decision making or advocacy. As Arunas, SXU’s patron saint of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), explained to me and others: “Administrators have a tough job; I wouldn’t want to do it. They work hard dealing with problems that have no clear or easy solutions. Faculty have their own jobs to do, and they cannot both do that job and also run the university.” 

The former union, when it worked well, provided a means of dialogue between faculty and administration in a way that systemized many balancing correctives. Collective bargaining typically brings this advantage, at least when it’s working well. In better days, we could collaborate in negotiating crucial matters like right-sizing the faculty and properly supporting individuals and programs. During negotiations from 2017-on, our union kept asking Dr. Joyner’s negotiators—principally her provosts, and there were many—Kathleen Alaimo, Suzanne Lee, James McLaren, Mike Marsden, Gwendolyn George, Angela Durante, and Saib Othman (though the Faculty Affairs Committee (FAC, our union) only negotiated with the first three)—what number of faculty was right for SXU. What was the administration’s vision in terms of faculty composition? We never received a response.

It was perhaps a difficult question, possibly unanswerable in the context of the institution at that time, with a lot of variables: What kind of programs do we want? What do our students want? What are the trends? What standards exist or are inferable from other institutions? Despite the difficulties, the discussion of the question could have been productive.

The lack of any kind of dialogue on this matter left the administration a kind of carte blanche in simply pursuing, without the explicit announcement of such, the reduction in faculty in general as a kind of absolute end in itself. We have about 30% fewer faculty today than when Dr. Joyner began her presidency—but the more dangerous and insidious change has to do with the compositional change we’ve seen. We have lost many tenured colleagues—almost a 50% reduction in tenured member since Dr. Joyner’s arrival in 2017, with a similar reduction (i.e., nearly 50%) in tenure lines over that period.

Here is the legacy of Dr. Joyner’s presidency at Saint Xavier:


Please note that the year prior to this data set was 2015-2016, arguably our most traumatic period, when we lost almost 40 full time faculty in a single year. This was the height of the Gilbert crisis. Dr. Joyner entered after that exodus, and after the crisis had been paid for. Yet she continued to cut—reducing tenured and tenure track faculty by nearly 50% over her tenure.

The past several years, beginning in 2015 as SXU entered into what our departing president and the Board of Trustees call its “fragile” period, decisions have been made that have required “all hands on deck”—beginning with the opening of the CBA in 2015—and its subsequent openings two other times throughout the span of the 2015-2019 four-year contract. The Memos of Understanding (MOUs), three in total required reporting and collaboration at unprecedented levels. Faculty found themselves “running”—or approximating the running of the university, as we reviewed every expense, every outlay of cash, every plan, often contentiously with the administration. Through it all, the union lost favor with the faculty—possibly for being entangled in the weeds, possibly for breaking down in communication—but really, because the problems were so big—and it’s hard work “running the institution”—and we were only thinking along those lines, not actually doing it.

That was when we had access to data. Now we fly in the dark, something that wouldn’t be all that bad if we had trust in our administration. We don’t—and for good reasons, but not permanent reasons, one hopes. We need to get the trust back. The promise of a new administration should inspire some hope that “something better” might come along. How much worse can it get?

While faculty are not equipped to make decisions on every expenditure of institutional life, we are equipped to weigh in on the massive disinvestment in tenure and tenure lines that has been pursued by the Joyner administration. SXU’s disinvestment in its academic mission was so extreme that it caught the attention (via published IPEDS and other data that the university is required to report) of Matthew Hendricks of the University of Tulsa, who created a “dashboard” analyzing SXU’s finances in the context of student outcomes and administrative austerity. For a more mission-referenced discussion the impacts of the type of disinvestment that Hendricks analyzed, please read the talk by Dr. Mary Beth Tegan presented to faculty in a special meeting called to gauge faculty support for proposed program eliminations.

Why are we rushing to eliminate programs at this delicate transitional moment? Soon after Dr. Joyner’s announcement that she would be leaving SXU to become the next president of St. Norbert College, the movement to restructure SXU and eliminate several liberal arts programs kicked into overdrive. With the provost’s recent submission of his restructuring plan to Senate and the current fast-tracking of program closure proposals, it is clear to us that we are entering a deeper, darker, hotter circle of hell. The weaknesses of the plan have been referenced in several entries in this blog. But ultimately, those entries are, more or less, my opinions, despite the level of volume in the complaints.

We need better decisions, and, more importantly, better trust. We may not, ultimately, divine the exact right number of faculty for programs. But we can do better than we have been doing on this question. We can certainly refuse to accept the administration’s refusal to articulate their number; we can ask them to defend, if not justify, their plans and actions, which have left us decimated times 5 (if “decimated,” etymologically, is the destruction of one of ten, our nearly 50% reductions require a factor of 5).

Disciplinary Content Needs for Teachers

March 22, 2023

[Note: This blog entry critiques SXU’s proposal to reduce content area requirements in several of its secondary education programs. The SXU proposal justifies its move in terms of a recent State rule change that reduced the minimum number of semester hours in a secondary-level content area from 32 to 18 hours. The blog entry below presents the example of the English program, but the critiques relevant to English apply to all secondary programs at SXU, which, as of 2019, must align to national disciplinary standards.] 

Secondary education programs may be housed, typically, in content areas (English, math, history, science, and the like), where there is a focus on disciplinary knowledge and methods along with pedagogy courses, or in education departments, where there is a focus on pedagogical principles and practices with a “concentration” on the disciplinary content.

I argue that, given current standards in Illinois—and the reality of program structures across the state—this dichotomy is a “distinction without a difference.” That is, the amount of discipline-based course work that is required by pretty much every program is more or less the same whether the program is “owned” by the disciplinary department or the education department. Programs housed in education departments do sometimes have fewer required disciplinary courses, but not that many fewer

An institution at the lower end, for instance, would be National Louis University, whose requirement in English courses (beyond first-year composition) totals 45 quarter hours, a number which converts to 30 semester hours. This allotment of hours is in the ballpark of a “major in English,” even though the program characterizes the English portion of the program as a “minor.” The bottom line is that to support the program, the university has to fund and supply instruction in English at essentially the same level that a major requires. While National Louis does not call their teacher preparation program a “double major,” it essentially is a double major. SXU’s current program is not called a “double major” either, but it essentially is one. So, let’s not get lost in semantics on this key question, and let us be wary of the damage that might be caused by framing the current proposal as a move away from a double major—the proposal’s key selling point.

Here is where SXU’s proposal is critically misleading. The proposal cites the State minimum of 18 hours as justification for eliminating the English major—but the reality is that no approved program in Illinois comes close to such a low number of required content area courses. In meetings, the provost has brushed aside discipline experts’ concerns for the dearth of content coverage by claiming that “the number, 18 hours, is not settled on; the education and disciplinary colleagues will work together to find the right number of content hours—it may be 21 or 24; that will be discussed and the number agreed to.” [I’m paraphrasing Dr. Othman; those weren’t his exact words, but they do reflect the spirit of his comments at our March 15, 2023 meeting.]

But 24 seems to be the upper limit in the provost’s comments to date. In former times 24 hours was a minimum for an endorsement in a secondary area of endorsement (secondary in the sense of “subsequent to an initial license,” not “secondary” in terms of educational level; please note that up until the recent change, the content area requirement for the initial license was 32 hours). To judge from the new state (i.e., national) standards, 24 is too low a number; 30 may be too low a number—but the current discussion would be more comfortable from a disciplinary perspective, if the provost’s angle of “we’ll work out the details collegially” were framed in a range of 30-45 semester hours.

Our current program is 45 semester hours in content. While we could provide arguments attesting to the leanness and efficiencies of those 45 hours, we should also be willing, I’d maintain, to entertain new configurations that cut down some of those hours—but not to 18 or 24 or 27. However we proceed, let’s adjust the parameters for content to the range of 30-45 as a starting point.

Why does our program consist of 45 hours? The short answer is “to be compliant with national standards.” Our national standards have been developed by our “Specialized Professional Organization” (SPA)—the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)—and they are quite rigorous. As of the recent (2019) change in State law, all secondary teacher preparation programs must now be aligned to national (i.e., SPA) standards. The State’s reduction of disciplinary content to a minimum of 18 was made possible by its prior tethering of all secondary programs to national SPA standards. The two changes happened close in time, but it’s noteworthy that the standards change—that is, the holding of programs to rigorous national standards—came first, by a year or so, thus protecting teacher education in the state, presumably, from a misguided approach of drastically reducing content coverage under the banner of the allowable reduction to 18 hours.

At Saint Xavier, it is important for us to be as efficient and as productive as possible. The “18 hours—no major needed” framing of the current proposal opens a door to the cancelation of the entire English program, in a way that misses the efficiency and synergies that currently characterize our three English tracks (secondary education, literature, and writing).  The number of English majors has ranged over the past decade or so from a low of about 40 to a high of about 80. Currently the numbers are growing, primarily in secondary education—but we have also experienced growth in our writing track. The characterizing of majors in terms of “tracks” is misleading because all three tracks are seamlessly interrelated, and each is mutually supportive of the others. The requirements for the tracks are essentially the same, and so it would be more accurate to characterize the major as one major, rather than in terms of its tracks.

Currently we have 54 majors, 35 of whom are English Secondary Education and 19 of whom are literature/writing majors. If SXU reassigns the 35 English Secondary Education students to be Education majors, the remaining 19 English majors may be too small a number to support a program. Hence there is talk of/justification for eliminating the English major. But the 35 newly-minted Education majors will still need, essentially, an English major. Without an English program, that major will not be available. So, 19 students will be cut off from pursuing a major that meets their needs, and 35 students will be left scrambling to complete program requirements and licensure needs in ways as yet undetermined, and not at all foreseeable.

Talk of cutting programs is both premature and reckless. It represents a movement away from the mission of SXU as a liberal arts institution—a movement that might be necessary or possibly desirable—but not at this extreme and destabilizing pace. The programs currently under consideration for cutting are all large enough, efficient enough, flexible enough, and diverse enough to have growth potential—especially if we could collectively engage in program design or re-design, something that has been talked about endlessly, but in a top-down and reactive way—often a threatening way—and without support, without collegiality—all in an environment where shared governance has been spotty at best. 

No compelling evidence has been produced that justifies such a radical departure from studies in English, Spanish, history, sociology, math—and even religious studies and philosophy (these latter two being programs, now cut, that were highly efficient in structure and synergy with general education and outside program interdependence). In so drastically eliminating majors in these areas, the university will be losing a critical mass in humanistic options in teaching and learning that, in the opinion of many, provide a foundation for all degree programs, and in highly cost-effective ways, and with demonstrated excellent outcomes for students—in both professional and academic arenas.

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.