Sunday, 7 July 2013

The So-called Decline and Fall of the English Major

The New York Times OpEdifier Verlyn Klinkenborg is looking in the wrong place to understand the crisis of the humanities. Let a quick curriculum vitae qualify me as an analyst, or not. After two years in the Navy, I spent three years as a philosophy major at the Jesuit University of Detroit in my hometown. I won the annual essay of Midwestern Jesuit universities with a rant entitled “Wanted: More Red Blooded Americans”, by which I meant citizens who fought poverty and racism like the Communists who were then agitating the community. The Jesuit head of the Sociology Department asked me to major in sociology when I submitted an essay on the split personality of the new Negro “Life” called” Ebony”: It  surrounded its integration pleas with ads for hair-straightening jells. Oh yes, and I double-dated with a black couple to integrate the Junior Prom at Eastwood Gardens.

But I went for an American Studies Ph.D. at Western Reserve University in Cleveland because they offered an interdisciplinary degree: Two prelims on American Lit, others on American philosophy and its European antecedents, American economic history, and American art and architecture. (My own formulation of the humanities in USA 1949). Alas, my proposed dissertation on Marshall McLuhan (I learned about his media ideas in the lay Catholic weekly, “Commonweal,”was bluntly rejected.) “Who?” My allegedly up-to-date committee asked me skeptically! So I wrote on John Fiske, the Harvard humanist who popularized Herbert Spencer. I tested his professional life against Emerson’s “American Scholar” (1836). Fiske flunked, but I learned how the humanities worked, or didn’t, in a fast changing America.

I moved to Michigan State (cheap in-state tuition) for two years preparing for my prelims. Married in 1950, I needed a job to finance the Catholic children born every second year! I became the janitor of the East Lansing State Bank. I slyly found an English slot at E.Lansing High, whose highly motivated students were the children of GM execs and Michigan State professors, with a few blue colors to clean up. They were the brightest, most articulate students I ever had in thirty years of teaching, from a blue collar commuter Trenton State (1956), Penn (1957-60), East-West Center, Honolulu (1961), and Arcadia University (1962-82), with  years off  in 1975 in Santa Rosa, CA, and 1977 to circle the Mediterranean in 90 days, celebrating my 50th year! In 1982 my school teacher mother May died, freeing me to fulfill my stronger and stronger wish to comprehend the humanities throughout the world, the scheme I called International English Literature, expanding to Commonwealth Literatures as quickly as I soundly could.

My global adventure began in Shanghai where  I studied Mandarin and looked carefully at the Chinese. It was full of pleasant surprises. For example, when some literary scholars learned I came from Philly, they asked me if I had ever visited Walt Whitman’s grave in Camden. They were thrilled to learn that I had discovered it was falling apart and coaxed English teachers to donate almost a thousand dollars to repair it. And I had my first journalistic scoop: Shanghai’s Art Museum (they had taken over a gorgeous Art Deco bank!)was making its first foreign exhibition—in San Francisco, where I was living. I had the front page essay (May 83) in KQED-TV’s monthly guide! (The curator grilled me on what works of art would most please San Franciscans. I pretended to be clairvoyant!)  While the rest of my fellow students went to walk China’s most famous wall, I dropped in unannounced to the offices of their newest newspaper “China Daily”! They grilled me mercilessly on how much baseball coverage I would recommend. I was hooked by the glorious serendipitousness of daily journalism.

I then examined Japan and soon found myself interviewing the scion of the last ruler, Osama Tokugawa, at the Foreign Correspondents Club. We discussed why he had given up his job as a banker to study enough art history so he could curate his family’s holdings. There is no more interesting occupation than seeing Global Humanism emerge and help define it. There followed further examinations of Latin America, Africa, more Asia—and the most astonishing humane customs of all, Europe, where I’ve settled down.

My good fortune had first bloomed in East Lansing, when Michigan State opened a UHF TV station, WKAR-TV. Eager for programming, they immediately approved of my proposal, a weekly teenage leisure series, “Everyman Is a Critic”. My first published essay, by that same name, appeared in Scholastic Teacher. Soon a Ford Foundation grant (1956) took me to New York City, where for six years I was their radio-tv editor, until a job in Honolulu made that impractical. On my daily trip from Flushing, where we four Hazards had an apartment, to Manhattan, I relished the new experience of reading the Times every morning. It reported a media conference the next Saturday. I invited myself. 

As I entered the hotel ballroom I saw Ralph Bunche talking with an unknown man. (Bunche had just been a “Time” cover!) I said I was Pat Hazard and I had a Ford Grant to see how we should deal with the newer media in the high schools. “ Well, how is it going, Mr. Hazard”, the unidentified man asked. “Lousey” was my curt reply. “Well,” The stranger identified himself as the publisher of “Time”, Roy Larsen. “I like the sound of what’s you’re doing! And I’m on the Ford Foundation group that gave you your grant. How would you like an office at “Time”. 

Dumbfounded I smiled weakly. He gave me his card and told me to show it at the “Time-Life Building” Monday morning. I did, and called Pat Weaver’s office at NBC, the fifth in my first week. His secretary had gotten colder and colder. I left the magical “Time” number, and hung up. In five minutes there was an announcement, “Is there a Patrick D. Hazard here? Call NBC please.” Weaver was a wonder, expatiating on his TV theory, “Enlightenment through Exposure” which some Dartmouth humanist had drilled in his head. For almost three hours he listened to my plan, described his own, and connected me with all the necessary brass at NBC.

It reminded me of the Daedalus Conference on Mass Culture in 1960. Penn had rewarded me with a two year Carnegie Postdoctoral grant to create the first course in Mass Culture in their American Civilization department. My aim was simple: identify the most creative individuals in today’s mass production and mass communication, and let your students experience their work and describe their opinions. Take Paddy Chayefsky’s plays. I had assigned overnight reviews from my high school students. A fortiori, college students would be ultimately urged to go and do better plays.

At the Daedalus Conference my mentor and Dean Gilbert Seldes at the new Annenberg School that I helped organize  asked me to give the lecture on Mass Culture and the Humanities. Hostility flared. The poet Randall Jarrell ended the lecture by waggling his beard at me and intoning, “Mr. Hazard, you’re the man of the future, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there.” Humane, right? Alas, he committed suicide some years later. Which made me doubly sad since I had relished teaching his poems. In my judgment this rejection of the responsibility of tutoring the ignorant was the betrayal of our humanism. The professors were more interested in succeeding in the Ivy League than in stooping to conquer the undereducated.

It became intolerable to me in the 1970’s when simultaneously professors got 100G’s and their peons who did the hard work had no health insurance and drifted from part time job to job. It was the contemptible 1% /99% pattern of a disintegrating American Civilization. I’d much rather be an alternative journalist living from week to week than such an arrogant inhumane humanist. The problem with the English is not esthetic. It’s moral. Or rather immoral. When I watched the highest Penn “humanists” suck up to Walter Annenberg’s money, I knew why the English major is dieing. He’s caught in a rotten society that fakes adherence to high moral standards but is really criminal, staying with the amoral 1%, as soon and as long as they can. It isn’t that they hadn't learned to write. They haven’t learned to make sound moral judgments about their disintegrating civilization. They are the nearly perfect inHumanists they chose to be!

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