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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Harvard students can't handle 'The Scarlet Letter' -- but prisoners can

“The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences — like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” Amanda Claybaugh told New Yorker writer Nathan Heller. After all, "the nineteenth-century was a long time ago." She is an English professor at Harvard, where she's also dean of undergraduate education.


Students there and everywhere are rejecting English and humanities majors, Heller writes in The End of the English Major.

Tara K. Menon, a junior professor, "linked the shift to students arriving at college with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach," he writes.

English majors are up at Arizona State University, thanks to a large online program that draws older students, writes Heller. Starbucks is funding barista McKenna Nelson's online bachelor's degree in English. She hopes to become a teacher.

Who else loves learning about the humanities? The maximum-security prisoners she teaches are motivated and hard-working, writes Brooke Allen in the Wall Street Journal. Some have been reading books for decades in prison and "would hold their own in any graduate seminar." Because they've "had rough experiences out in the real world," she writes, they are "less liable to fall prey to facile ideologies."

With no access to cellphones or the internet, her incarcerated students "have retained their attention spans," Allen writes. "My friends who teach at Harvard tell me administrators have advised them to change topics or activities several times in each class meeting because the students simply can’t focus for that long."

I have taught classes on the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Romanticism, George Orwell, South Asian fiction. We’ve done seminars on Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville. Together we have read Montaigne, Rousseau, Keats, Erasmus, Locke, Montesquieu, Wollstonecraft, Byron, Goethe, Petrarch, Rabelais, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rohinton Mistry. The students write essays in longhand; during the pandemic I taught a correspondence class via snail mail.

The New Yorker story quotes James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia, who compared teaching George Eliot's Middlemarch to landing a 747 on a rural airstrip. Many of Allen's students read -- and appreciate -- Middlemarch, she writes.

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