How funny it is, and tragic, the way most people invision the worth of a degree in the humanities. I remember when I graduated from Cal and the commencement speaker suggested that getting an English degree was like “planting an existential question mark on your forehead.” He was a writer in Los Angeles, a successful one at that, and though excited by the day, I remember being irked by that remark. I remembered this moment after reading an interesting article by English professor Mark Bauerlein on the cost of literary research. Dr. Bauerlein even did a financial analysis on academic literary output, and while I agree with his argument to a point, it left me with that same irksome feeling.
For so long now, non-humanistic studies have been the focus of the academy. Universities put up state-of-the-art MBA facilities and add flat panels to their science wings, while the English and History folks huddle together in drafty, aged classrooms. I get it, resources go where the money is at. I suspect one of the reasons literary folks are often wary of new technology is because it’s the industry associated with the marginalization of literary studies. Why would an academic embrace something that pushes out her craft, symbolically, economically, even socially? And Dr. Bauerlein is right in that English departments can’t afford to bury their heads and pretend this negative cash bleed isn’t happening. But I wonder if we just aren’t getting the message out; maybe we need to create a marketing movement for the humanities? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but saying something about the value of English matters, I think.
One of my brilliant instructors turned our class onto a beautifully-written article by Mark Slouka on the ways in which humanities gets a bad rap, and how that devalued reputation has become the lynchpin for the sinking American educational system. Slouka discusses how “our [American] orthodoxy is economic” and without a cost-benefit analysis that makes sense, the intangible product of clear thinking becomes a luxury for which our citizens are no longer willing to throw down. Many, if not most Americans think like Slouka’s mother-in law, who when hearing her future son-in-law was earning a Ph.D in literature, queried: “A doctor of philosophy,” she said. “What’re you going to do, open a philosophy store?”
Like the English folks have been saying, I suspect along with the rest of the humanities crew, the value is not in product but in process. Slouka says it best:
The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.
They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.
The value of clear thought, of cogent reasoning, of critical thinking is in a dire state if we cannot see the value of an education in English. It’s a critical underpinning for the educated, and its absence creates consequences far more devastating than typos. In The Demon-Haunted World, non-English major and cosmologist Carl Sagan closes his opus with the following:
If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.