Superliteracy in the Age of Information: Preparation for Higher Discourse (PHD)

The amount of education required to prepare a human being for meaningful, effective interaction with the information infrastructure that undergirds the contemporary social order has increased exponentially in the last seventy-five years. For centuries, literacy was expected for a life of political and social consequence; nonetheless, up through the broadcast era, weak literacy skills could be compensated for by critical listening and rote memorization. Literacy rates rose throughout the twentieth century, when the demand for literate workers increased, as did the demand for advanced cognitive skills associated with degrees from institutions of higher education. The largest expansion came after the Second World War in the United States, when the GI Bill made college accessible to an entire generation in response to a return of restless, world-traveled veterans and to perceived challenges in science, technology, and culture mounted by the Soviet bloc and Communist China.

When the sons and daughters of that war generation went to college twenty to thirty years later, in the 1960s and 1970s, something unintended happened. College education was supposed to assist the government of the United States in defeating the threat of world communism. Instead, college campuses became hosts to a challenge from within. Students with advanced skills were probing familiar arguments and finding them flimsy; they were unearthing documents, secret histories, and evidence in plain sight to articulate dissenting opinions. Now a college education could be associated with antipatriotism, with elaborate distinctions and challenges often baffling in their complexity and unmistakably hostile to the class, cultural, and familial origins of the students. The mass media emblem of this divide was portrayed on weekly television, when the college-educated (including graduate school) Michael Stivic faced off against Archie Bunker, a war veteran from the working class, in the CBS television series All in the Family. Antiwar sentiments, antiauthoritarian impulses, friends to dissenters, and threats to the social order as we knew it—all this flowed from college and, worse still, from graduate education in the humanities.

Fifty years later, and we still seem perplexed about the function and value of higher education. A few facts are illustrative. What educators call the great cost shift has moved most of the cost of education from government (through state college subsidies) to individuals, through tuition revenue. Thus, as employers, legislators, and educators are arguing for increased access to higher education, we have seen historically unprecedented financial barriers to higher education rise nationwide. In 1947, higher education was considered a state investment for the public good; after 1970, a pattern of disinvestment began, paralleling the sense that higher education for its own sake was suspect—the source of national dissent.

It is not difficult to understand why the voting public, most of whom have not attended college, would favor the shift away from higher education’s being funded like the national defense to its being funded more like a private commodity. The shift has been supported by parallel arguments that define a college education as career preparation and thus a private matter—and some private colleges are supported by endowments that rival the wealth of small nation-states. Career preparation is precisely what Michael Stivic was not getting in college. Implicit but largely silent in the currently popular vocational definitions of higher education is that college is not preparation for citizenship, much less for leading dissent or progressive change.

As a result, while the United States has become wealthier in the half century since 1970, it has deinvested in higher education access. We have seen a rise in dollars for merit aid, which funds college prestige, at the expense of need-based aid, which funds access, thus increasing the barrier for working-class families, for families of color, and for first-generation college students—strong sources of dissent, historically. Heather McGhee, of Demos, an educational advocacy group, has observed that American wealth is largely in the hands of an aging, relatively whiter generation, while educational need is growing fastest among younger, darker Americans. Fifty years ago an older generation asked why it was paying the bill for light-skinned, long-haired hippies and bra-burning feminists who majored in English and seemed preternaturally critical; today, McGhee suggests, the same question is asked by an aging generation about a new, darker American demographic.

College presidents at liberal arts institutions undermine their historic mission by catering to vocational arguments at the expense of the social and cultural missions of their institutions. In addition, graduate programs in English undermine the unprecedented opportunity they possess at this particular historic juncture when they argue, in parallel fashion, that a PhD in English is preparation exclusively, primarily, or even preferably for a career in the academy. For as long as I have been in higher education, I have seen the MLA’s charts and graphs explaining the paucity of jobs for new PhDs in English departments, with the implication that there are too many English PhDs because we don’t have enough tenure lines to employ even half of them.

Allow me to sketch out my own career path in the name of full disclosure. I am a first-generation college student (Haverford Coll., 1978). My education was funded in part by need-based aid and National Defense Education Act student loans. I completed a master’s degree at Wesleyan in 1981, which was paid by the loans; my PhD in American civilization at Brown University (1985) was funded by institutional resources. Because there were no tenure-line jobs for me in 1985, I took a one-year replacement position. In 1986, because there were no tenure-line jobs for me, I accepted with gratitude a three-year Mellon postdoctoral appointment. In 1989 I secured a tenure-line appointment at a business college, where I progressed through the faculty ranks and got involved in administration. Until that appointment I did not know what a business college was. In 2000, on the strength of my administrative record, I moved to an appointment as chair of an English department at a state university, where we not only expanded the graduate program but also added an MFA to the existing MA and PhD tracks. I left that position to become a dean in 2006 and then a president in 2010, both at liberal arts colleges. Two life lessons inform my thinking as a result: I never had the kind of job for which my mentors prepared me in graduate school; I received in graduate school precisely the training I needed for each job I have had, especially my most recent appointment, which was largely managerial and entrepreneurial.

I remember discussions in the English department at the University of Mississippi regarding the nature of the MFA we would create. MFA programs tend to run along a spectrum, from extensive reading-list requirements, on the one hand, to minimal reading and almost exclusively studio work or writing, on the other. The late Barry Hannah was on the Ole Miss faculty then, and his voice carried considerable weight in our deliberations. “Oh hell,” he declared at one point, “we don’t want to add to the number of dopes out there who want to be writers. They should read ten thousand words for every one they afflict on someone else.” That argument won the day in Mississippi—I fear it does not win the day in many parallel situations when preparation is discussed.

Hannah used the term superliteracy to describe the argument in favor of the expansion of graduate degrees in English, against current trends. He was intending to be at once descriptive and caustic. I liked the term, despite its origin in irony, and am drawn to it again when I think about the need in our workforce and in society for PhDs in English. What I understand by the term is that while we need greater literacy in general, we also have a growing need for people who can do a lot more with language than simply read and write it. The superliterate not only possess advanced capacity to use language but also know its history, especially the history that is embedded in literary traditions, where language is stretched, experimented with, and revived. We have a greater need today than at any moment in the past one hundred years for more, not fewer, PhDs in English. And most of them are needed outside the academy.

The so-called knowledge economy indicates a critical challenge to educators. Consider the example of a video on YouTube that goes viral, which means that a seemingly innocuous, amateur, homemade video has caught the attention of social networkers to the extent that millions may see it, be influenced by it, have it become a significant part of what influences and motivates (or subdues and depresses) them. The potential today for the spread of unvetted content, of outright misinformation, is astounding. Moreover, the totalitarian potential is greater today than ever, as is the potential for nefarious infiltration (whether internal or external) of information sources. Although our attention is captured more dramatically by the armed shooter, threats to the peace and to civil procedures are far greater at the keyboard than in the schoolyard.

At the very moment when the need for those with superliteracy skills is at its highest in the history of humanity, there are calls to move away from it because it is not productive or because we cannot make a direct link between these skills and the workforce. My work recently has been at the undergraduate level in the liberal arts, and I think English graduate programs might learn from the advocacy, for example, of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where job skills in high demand by employers are aligned with liberal arts study. One program in particular, called the Presidents’ Trust, is working to connect CEOs and college presidents to create employment pipelines for liberal arts graduates. These examples are transferable to graduate study in English.

First and foremost, PhD programs in English must cease to define the targeted career goal for the PhD as that of college professor or teacher or educator. To facilitate and maintain this redefinition, I would introduce the model of the external advisory board to the English department. English departments should consider creating consultative committees made up of alumni and friends of English from industry, government, nonprofits, and NGOs to advise graduate faculty members and department chairs on nonacademic career paths for their graduates. Community leaders and civic activists might be included as well, and leaders from traditionally underserved segments of the community, to assist English departments in looking outside the academy for points of influence and opportunity. These boards would operate in an advisory capacity, to critique, cajole, and assist in maintaining departmental relevance and to provide resources and opportunities for graduates.

Second, English departments might consider adding a segment to the standard “introduction to graduate studies” course on careers outside the academy. It does not need to be a wish list so much as a contextualization of specific skills in workforce needs, along with career examples from employed PhDs. According to a 2003 MLA study, “for the last thirty years PhDs in literature and language have had rewarding careers outside the academy. Repeated reports affirm that these PhDs experience greater job satisfaction than their colleagues who take academic positions.” The study also notes that those employed “report that their doctoral years provided critical preparation for their careers outside the academy, for doctoral study taught them how to define a large, complex research project; how to work with a supervisor; how to organize and carry out research; how to take criticism; and how to revise and bring a major work to completion” (Professionalization 4).

My third suggestion is that graduate programs in English ought to employ what the social sciences call clinical adjunct faculty members—English PhDs from various professions: publishers, yes, but also staff members from foundations, corporations, industries, and community organizations, to run workshops and other tutorials for advanced students preparing for life, after graduation, outside the academy.

These three changes, using external advisory committees, adding an introduction to career potential, and employing clinical faculty members, will realign departments of English with contemporary opportunities where the skills we teach are desperately needed. The intellectual tradition in literary criticism of demolishing perceived, intended, and claimed authority or purpose (the method of unmasking) has become more valuable as the rate and forcefulness of misinformation rises. Convincing, using evidence, revealing how language manipulates as well as informs—these habits of mind are critical in the defense against viral truths and other digital phenomena. The linking of the value of an English PhD exclusively to the job market for English professors is an abdication of graduate education’s power to shape the future that will emerge from the digital revolution, right at the moment of its dawning. The value of an English PhD will rise only with the cultivation of external opportunities.

Marjorie Perloff argues:

[A] true literature department would focus on critical reading—on the how of literary texts rather than their subject matter, with the implication that immersion in the program . . . will develop an expertise that those who major in math or business don’t have. Emphasis would be on the very nature and variety of verbal representation, on such questions as the relation of “verse” to “prose,” fiction to nonfiction, irony to parody and satire. Difficulty rather than eclecticism would be the order of the day.


She suggests that value must be grounded in things English PhDs can do that others cannot, because we specialize in language, language use, and language history. Let’s dispel some old misconstructions. Studying literature does not make you a better person. There is no route to virtue through Shakespeare, Milton, Faulkner, Morrison, or any genre, period, or critical school of thought. We really need to stop saying so. There are as many unethical English majors as there are unethical business or sociology or engineering majors.

At the same time, the wish to suppress a liberal arts education and sequester its poster child, the English PhD, in the academy will continue. Authoritarian admonitions against abstract, open-ended education will continue. They are grounded in the fear that such education will disrupt the social order and therefore should be replaced by more practical, measurable training. Consistently, the question posed is, What will you do with this education?

Historically, restrictions on intellectual development are entwined with political control and rooted in power relations. The disruptive potential of a liberal education, or of a proliferation of PhDs in English, is not so much that it has no practical use as that the end result for those who engage in its rigor is not something that we can predict with certainty. Liberal education in the humanities is rooted in the manipulation and use of language without regard to the relative value of conclusions or findings. In the tradition of liberal arts education, we prepare the future makers of widgets to be as critical and manipulative as we do those dedicated to banning widgets from society. We do this by ignoring widgets, for the most part.

I suggest the same approach for graduate programs in English. In fact, I would recalibrate the reigning, defeatist ethos that defines the tenure-track job as a crowning achievement to one where remaining in the academy would be but one among many options. The ambition of the graduate program coordinator ought to be the placement of English PhDs in positions of authority and influence in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors of the economy, where they may become agents of linguistic power and creative change. Such recalibration may result in a higher demand for PhDs in English and for faculty members to teach them. Why would we want fewer experts in language at the dawn of the digital age, the age of the knowledge economy?

The genealogy of dissuasion is traceable to the historical suggestion that, for some, abstract thinking, thinking about thinking, is not appropriate, is useless. Or worse, because it implicates us (the MLA “us”), it is traceable to the idea that the only occupation for which a PhD in English prepares one is to teach—a perfectly self-fulfilling misconception as long as graduate programs remain willfully uninformed about the expertise they impart. Implicit in my argument is a reorientation of graduate faculty members to the state, so that they will recognize and articulate the relevance of experts in language and literature to the digital era. The reorientation will communicate what is at stake in the passion held by a select portion of the educated population to pursue a calling toward linguistic acumen or superliteracy. Such passions should be cultivated, not suppressed, as if or because the oncoming evolution of our civilization depends on them.

Works Cited

McGhee, Heather. Keynote address. Another Bubble? The Sustainability of the Higher Education Economic Model. Presidents Conf. on Higher Educ. New York, 16 Oct. 2012.

Perloff, Marjorie. “The Decay of a Discipline: Reflections on the English Department Today.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 20.1 (2011): 153–67. Print.

Professionalization in Perspective. Modern Language Association. MLA, 30 May 2013. Web. 28 July 2013. <>.

Joseph R. Urgo is a senior fellow with the Association of American Colleges and Universities and senior research professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.

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