What is an English class worth?

Image credit: Theodore Geisel

Image credit: Theodore Geisel

This week everyone was talking about a new report on the state of humanities education in America. Requested by Congress in 2010 and developed in association with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the report finds that university humanities programs' enrollments and budgets have been steadily declining for the past several decades. Students, parents, politicians, and non-humanities majors in general have, of late, been putting their faith in the STEM fields. As the New York Times puts it, the report is coming at a time when the humanities are "often accused of being frivolous at best, fraudulent at worst." The commission calls for a renewed recognition of the indispensability of such derided disciplines as English, History, and Philosophy, as well as the social sciences.  

Because my degrees are in English, you might expect that I'd hop right up onto the Language and Literature float in the Defenders of the Humanities parade. You'd think that I would be relieved to hear this new chorus of voices affirming that my field of study is, at once, neither frivolous nor merely utilitarian. (Verlyn Kinkenborg's recent New York Times column "The Decline and Fall of the English Major" nicely expresses the humanist's paradoxical desire for both utility and ethereality.)

But instead, I'm struck by how much we humanities folks tend to want it both ways. We desire (if I might shamelessly generalize) to be pure pursuers of the Truth about human experience, and we want our pursuit to be unsullied by any mercenary concerns--and yet, we also want our work to matter, pun intended. We want to make tangible contributions to our schools, governments, economies, and communities. We want the world to be a better place for our having read Shakespeare or puzzled out Kant or solved a mystery about human social behavior. 

I think about this question all the time. How am I better for having studied the humanities? How am I better equipped to spread all this betterness to the world around me? Here's a start: three Ways I'm Better after all my training in the humanities.

  1. I'm better at reading. A couple weeks ago I checked out the Watergate Exhibit at the North Carolina History Museum. After winding my way through the displays of photographs and wiretapping equipment, I came upon the single most striking artifact in the exhibit: President Nixon's resignation letter. It was a nearly empty piece of paper. The entire message was as follows: "I hereby resign the office of the President of the United States. Sincerely, Richard Nixon." The letter obviously is built upon a mountain of subtext; all human communication is. Looking at that letter, I realized something. When you're in elementary school, learning to read means learning how to sound out increasingly complicated words. When you're an adult, learning to read means becoming sensitive to increasing levels of complexity in the text you're reading, and coming to recognize the infinite subtexts that give texts their meanings. The more you know about history, government, human behavior, and all the other subjects studied in humanities courses, the more material you'll have from which to reconstruct the context of any text you read. 
  2. I'm better at imagining other people's stories. When I was reading George Eliot's 1,000-page novel Middlemarch a few years ago, I had to make a little chart to help me keep track of all the dozens of characters and their complicated relationships. I don't know how you'd make sense of the endlessly intertwined plot lines otherwise. The effect of Eliot's narrative strategy--which she devised specifically to achieve this effect--is to show how interconnected we are as members of the human race. The narrator shows us readers what is inside the characters' hearts, letting us understand each of them better than they can understand each other. Even those characters who are most unlikable to the people around them are, to us, sympathetic, or even pathetic (except maybe Rosamund Vincy.) Eliot believed that the cultivation of sympathy is the moral imperative of fiction. Well, mission accomplished. Of all the novels I've read, hers are the most likely to come into my mind when I'm faced with a real-life person who seems difficult or selfish. I just imagine the inner life that the Middlemarch narrator would paint for this person, and all the impatience melts away. 
  3. I'm better at critiquing myself. Samuel Johnson's essays on morality; Herman Melville's depiction of a ship captain's tragic, monomaniacal quest; Thoreau's stripped-down existence in the woods. Each of these texts gets into my head, shapes my thoughts, and speaks to me as if in my own voice about the changes I need to make in my way of thinking and acting. "Be diligent," says Johnson--but Melville adds, "Don't pursue one goal single-mindedly at the expense of everything else." Thoreau speaks up and says, "Be deliberate about how you spend your time and resources. Savor the beauty in the world." But I'll stop myself here. If I were to catalogue all the passages in books that have shaped my character, it would take a whole lot more than one blog post.

I hope this list has gotten you thinking about your own experience with the humanities.  How have you benefitted (or suffered) from the humanities courses you've taken? Do you think scientific study has the same benefits as humanities study? What benefits are unique to the sciences? To the humanities?

Posted on June 26, 2013 .