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From the President

Association Matters

Reprinted from the Spring 2009 MLA Newsletter

Although I am not pessimistic by nature, as I write in December 2008 I see reasons for disquiet ranging from war to global warming and now to an economic crisis that intensifies our shared professional concerns. My colleagues at the State University of New York and throughout the country are girding for yet another struggle to secure adequate funding for public university systems already pared to the bone by decades of budget trimming. In both public and private institutions, searches are being canceled or put on hold: especially in the humanities, the academic marketplace is visibly tightening. College and university endowments continue to plummet, along with retirement portfolios.

Still, the transition in Washington is well under way. While a rapid recovery appears unlikely, there is much talk of investment in infrastructure. Here is where I see some cause for cautious optimism; here is where our disciplines come in—or ought to, if we can make our voices heard. Can we make the case that universities are as crucial as roads and bridges? that investment in undergraduate programs, graduate research, and financial aid at all levels is as essential as investment in pipelines and broadband capacity? that expanded access to affordable postsecondary study of the liberal arts and the humanities will allow us to develop a grounded, nimble workforce able to identify and address the challenges ahead?

In principle the American system of postsecondary education is uniquely equipped to produce such a workforce. Alas, the difficulties we are now facing only exacerbate those the system has been dealing with for decades. In The Unmaking of the Public University, Christopher Newfield describes a constellation of factors that have weakened higher education in the United States—and the humanities in particular—over the past half-century. He identifies one of the chief concerns behind his project as "the country's intellectual and imaginative decline":

By the early 2000s, the American majority seemed to have lost its vision of a society devoted to the development and happiness of its members. Judging from media discourse, we had come to believe in economic growth and little else, more money and little else. Other aims, particularly coming from other cultures and countries, seemed increasingly mysterious and even threatening to us. Did we still have the cultural capacity to understand, interact, and respond positively to a world of countless motives, one where sheer growth was no longer an environmental option? (14)
Whether or not we subscribe to Newfield's account of cultural decline, we cannot deny the aptness of his focus on our limited ability to appreciate other cultures. A rather surprising case in point comes from a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times. Under the title "Continuity We Can Believe In," Brooks argues that the groundwork for a changed American foreign policy was laid some years ago, as military officers in war zones "realized that the big challenge in this new era is not killing the enemy, it's repairing the zones of chaos where enemies grow and breed." He refers to a 2006 speech by Secretary of State Rice calling for "a transformational diplomacy in which State Department employees would . . . be out in towns and villages doing broad campaign planning with military colleagues, strengthening local governments and implementing development projects."

Now, the nation clearly benefits if it can call on a broad pool of liberally educated, politically savvy, and culturally sensitive citizens who can quickly read and adapt to prevailing conditions and work effectively with their counterparts at home and abroad. As it happens, the foundational disciplines that allow students to develop the cultural capacities Newfield and Brooks suggest we need are precisely the ones for which MLA members have primary responsibility in colleges and universities. We stress careful reading, critical thinking, and effective writing. We introduce works of literature that invite students to empathize with people unlike themselves and to imagine themselves in situations unlike their own. Some of us teach cultural studies, media studies, rhetoric, or linguistics—disciplines in which students are led to look at themselves and their cultural context analytically and from a certain distance. And those of us who teach foreign languages and literatures press students to reflect on the ways in which linguistic proficiency and cultural understanding are inseparably intertwined.

The knowledge and skills and problem-solving abilities our students acquire and hone in our classes are critical resources: for us, this is so obvious that it tends to go without saying. Yet as academics and as teachers of the humanities, we are being asked yet again—by parents, legislators, journalists, "the public"—to defend what we do and the way we do it. For many, the temptation will be to retreat into the institutional territory that we occupy in our daily lives and simply struggle to retain resources for our departments, programs, and academic fields. But if we are organized in a modern language association, it is because members of our profession have long understood the connection between our work and the state of higher education at large. As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz show in The Race between Education and Technology, the progress of the American system toward producing more well-educated citizens has stagnated since the 1970s, while the rest of the world has been catching up with us. Goldin and Katz link the decline of middle-class living standards and the opening of an alarming income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society to a problem of supply: too few students are achieving the educational level necessary to sustain the socioeconomic progress made during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. This trend correlates with the broad retreat from public investment in higher education that Newfield documents. Reversing it will require collective action by well-organized educators and citizens who are willing to move beyond the confines of academic institutions and press their political leaders to make the cause of reinvestment in education a component of the federal program for restoring social and economic prosperity.

With its more than 30,000 members, the Modern Language Association can be a powerful voice for strengthening the institutions that allow us to do our critical work. The MLA is engaged in ongoing efforts to influence legislative and policy decisions at the state and federal levels. We argue that colleges and universities are a crucial component of the nation's infrastructure and that increased investment in them will expand our "cultural capital" in essential ways. In early March, Rosemary Feal and I will join colleagues representing the full range of humanities disciplines for a day-long advocacy workshop in Washington, followed by a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill. Perhaps some Newsletter readers will join us. But there are many paths to advocacy: on their Web sites, both the National Humanities Alliance ( and the Joint National Committee for Languages–National Council for Languages and International Studies ( offer valuable suggestions, and others may emerge from the open discussion scheduled to take place at our convention in San Francisco. I urge you to explore these paths and to continue the discussion, in this forum and elsewhere, in the months ahead.


Works Cited

Brooks, David. "Continuity We Can Believe In." New York Times 2 Dec. 2008, late ed.: A33. Print.

Goldin, Claudia, and Lawrence F. Katz. The Race between Education and Technology. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Newfield, Christopher. The Unmaking of the Public University. Harvard UP, 2008. Print.
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Catherine Porter
2009 MLA President Catherine Porter
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.