Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Rise and Fall of the English Major

An article in the New York Times caught my eye the other day.  Written by someone with the unlikely name of Verlyn Klinkenborg.

The Rise and Fall of the English Major

It was a timely article for me to encounter.  I was an English major.  Three years ago, I left my steady, practical day job in tech support, that I'd held for nine years, when I received a playwriting fellowship at Princeton University, and I have been happily, happily writing full time ever since.  But playwriting isn't quite paying the bills.  (It's paying -- just not enough.)  And I haven't been able to find another job.  I've decided to move back home to the farm in Oregon for a while, as I continue to write and continue my search for a fellowship, commission, or teaching job somewhere.

Oy.

How do we study art and literature and philosophy when we aren't sure how we're going to keep a roof over our heads?  (Remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs from that psychology class.)  But I place such great value on my education.  I couldn't write the plays I've written, the plays that I'm writing now, without the broad scope of the liberal arts education I received.

My teachers gave me books to read that I've come to understand are the common language for interpreting our experience of being human.  They gave me the tools I needed to decipher the world I live in -- not just take it apart, but put it back together again with words and understanding.  The English classes, yes (because I love stories most of all), but also the science classes (scientific principle), the psychology classes, history, religion, languages, and even (yes, I'll admit it) math.  Who gave me these gifts?  Mom, who took us to the library in town, buying the $40 out-of-town country-bumpkin family card, though that was expensive for us then, because it was important.  Dad, who read The Hobbit and the entire Trilogy of the Ring out loud to me (with the voices!) and took me fishing with him in the woods.  Mrs. Berrum, who helped me write my first poem (when I was in 4th grade at Monitor Elementary School) and pinned it up on the board.  The nuns who taught bible stories and catechism to me on Wednesday evenings.  In high school...  Mr. Brueckner, who loved chemistry and storytelling in equal measure, and was kind of irresistible, even though I didn't like chemistry at all.  Mr. Clute, acting out Shakespeare scenes in the front of the class, making us work out poems together (the meaning of parts), and nudging us chapter by chapter though Moby Dick.  Dr. Reid (art history) and Mr. Mock (creative writing) and that really cute Italian guy whose name I don't remember (philosophy) at Chemeketa Community College.  Professors Lord and Bothun and Michel at Willamette University (English).  My writing teachers in the MPW program at USC -- Ben Masselink, Lee Wochner...

These people all affected my life and the lives of so many others with their generosity of spirit, intellectual rigor, and joy in what they were doing, that they weren't afraid to share.

In difficult times, our world contracts to the necessities.  Understandably.  Reasonably.  But we can't lose the things that make even the poorest life rich -- music and theater and books and art and philosophy and scientific inquiry and study of history and broad thinking -- because if we do, we might be losing just the tools that will help us find our way out of this woods again...

I don't know.  I'll report back if and when I make it out.


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