In elementary school, I loved to read. I would stay up at night, quickly switching my bedside lamp out when my mother came to check that I was sleeping. I didn’t get away with it because she would check to see if the bulb is warm. I’d bring books to the dinner table and read while brushing my teeth. I checked out books from the local libraries by the armload. My parents weren’t rich, just a state employee engineer and a stay at home mom before she went back to work in the unglamorous profession of tax accounting. We listened to Focus on the Family radio programs. We went to a Lutheran Church every Sunday. I was a good little conservative but I was also taught the value of argument, logic, and language. “Liberal arts” was the exception to suspicion of all things “liberal.”
By the time I got to high school, it was clear all those books had left me with more than your average facility with words. All that reading had paid off. I aced the language sections of the standardized tests. I sailed through English classes. I was moody and precocious and generally insufferable.
In college, I was a shoe-in English major. But I added German too, because my professor was wonderful, and I fell in love with the language through him. It was quirky, followed a different logic, and felt somehow like a door to a different way of embodying the world. When I graduated, I taught English in Austria. I tried to perfect my German, learned to make cheese, visited my students’ family farms, learned about new history and customs, traveled Europe by rail with friends, saw the monuments and museums of Rome, Florence, Vienna, and London.
And I kept reading of course. In German and in English. All sorts of things (my curiosities have always been very ecumenical, omnivorous even). I read about World Wars, the history of duels, the memoirs of scientists, Greek and Roman classics, midcentury baby-boom era paperback commentaries on the classics, postmodernist novels, modernist poetry, pre-modern sagas. There wasn’t a need to justify such things. They were intrinsically good. They were the point of all this—this human civilization I so enjoyed poking about in. They gave me new places to go, new thoughts to think, new people to be for the length of a novel.
Next, I got a MA in English, and then decided to continue for a PhD. I loved Moby-Dick and Walden enough to carry me through a lifetime, after all. From the beginning of graduate school, I taught. Probably not very well, at first, but I slowly got better as I went. It’s really the only way. And I started discovering more about the variety of intellectual traditions that hold sway in modern America. From my students and my reading. My coursework gave me one tradition, full of Germans and French elaborations of Germans. My work in a used bookstore gave me another, of American pragmatism and popular paperback scholarship. My sister joined an MA program at the University of Dallas and I became acquainted with Leo Strauss and his conservative, self-proclaimed heirs. Almost by coincidence, I fell in love with Hannah Arendt’s turns of phrase in response to a podcast on Martin Heidegger.
My politics had shifted a bit—I loved the forests and deserts of Idaho and wanted to protect them, and I couldn’t see justice or freedom in a runaway “free market”—but I still enjoyed reading all the positions, teaching my students not to dismiss arguments simply because they didn’t like them, insisted on rigor and intellectual fairness. I loved Wendell Berry, who seemed to take the best of both sides from our simplistic political scale and transform it into moving, beautiful, soul-searching truth.
I knew, all the while, that the job market for English PhDs was dismal. But people did get jobs, and I was sure I would regret not devoting these prime years of my life to this passion. The passion itself was good. Sure, there was a “crisis” of the humanities, but hadn’t there always been?
I know I am not alone. Everywhere I go, I meet people who love books and thought as much as I do. They aren’t all at academic conferences. They are in woodshops, cafes, my own classrooms, my family gatherings. But one place they aren’t, it seems, is in power.
I now face graduation. I don’t mind that I couldn’t find a job this year (there weren’t many, after all—30 odd positions internationally for nineteenth-century Americanists). But it’s different than that. I left Idaho, my beloved home state because the only English PhD program there is ranked far too low to make the risk worthwhile. I came to Nebraska, which has a long tradition of top-notch English scholarship, but no mountains and hardly any trout streams (the latter is why my grandparents left 60 years ago).
This past fall, Republican state senators in Nebraska wrote an op-ed accusing the English department of failing to teach our own subject after a kerfuffle between an English grad student and an undergrad in front of the Student Union that was fed to the conservative outrage machine. And at the same time, huge University-wide budget cuts were announced. What suddenly seemed like a well-funded and strategic campaign to denigrate the ancient Trivium of the liberal arts—Logic, grammar, and rhetoric—hit the English department hard. This wasn’t a crisis as a byproduct of a system. This was an out and out attack. It’s hard to write a dissertation in the best of times. I feel like I’m about to be hauled in front of a tribunal to justify my meager economic output. What does a study of the agricultural journals of the 1850s have to offer anyone! We know better!
Meanwhile, my fiancée (whom I met in an English graduate class) took a job at the University Press of Kentucky. We were both thrilled at this new opportunity, a new place (Wendell Berry!), and starting our lives together doing something we believed in wholeheartedly: bringing more truly thoughtful books into the world. I thought we might have escaped what felt like doom in Nebraska.
The weekend we moved her into our new apartment, Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, unveiled a budget that would totally defund the University Press. It’s still unresolved, but she may well have just moved across the country only to be laid-off from a well-respected Press, merely because attacks on academia play well for the base. Tonight, we spent our nightly phone call in tearful silences and hollow encouragements.
Perhaps I was naïve, or idealistic. Maybe this has always been going on. Perhaps in this profession, committed idealism is what it takes. My personal hero, after all, is Henry David Thoreau. But like Thoreau in the days of slavery, I have to do something. I have to speak up. This anti-intellectualism is going to make us all into quietly desperate data points, tools of our tools at last. We need to see that this for what it is: a variety of slavery. Literacy—and the love of books and thought that flourishes with it—has always been a terrible danger to tyrants. Ask Frederick Douglass, Absalom Jones, Harriet Jacobs, or Sequoyah. Learning to read has always been a path to freedom.
We can’t cede education as merely job training. It’s not just an instrument for some other goal. It is worthwhile simply because the world is more worthwhile when we care about thought, about stories, about the meanings in the world around us. Education doesn’t have to turn a profit—it is what we spend our society’s profits on. It’s the point of all that wealth and leisure. That was part of the wisdom of Pericles, of Charlemagne, of the Renaissance. It was part of the wisdom of the long tradition of American public education, and the Morrill Act, and the Fulbright program, and the GI Bill. But it is wisdom one whole political party seems to have turned its back on, deciding that the academy is simply a haven for “liberal elites” if it is anything at all beyond the school mascots and stadium skyboxes. That it should be paid for by the students, and that it is merely a consumer product.
If we are headed into a new Dark Age, as it certainly feels it is while I’m so besieged, there may be nothing I can individually do. But those Greek and Roman classics I still read and love survived down to today by only the most fragile thread. So I hope we can find a way to save something.
Please–write to or call Kentucky legislators and the Governor. Call the offices of Nebraska lawmakers. Do something. We have to stand up to this. Yes, for me and my fiancee. But for you too.