This New York Times article, “Decline and Fall of the English Major,” is right up my alley.
Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.
You should go read it.
But the anxious parents’ common question reminds me also of the discouraging questions so many of my kids asked me these past two years: “Why we gotta read this? When am I ever going to use this, Ms. Shea?”
And then they would look at me and expect me to give them a satisfactory answer in 2 minutes or less.
Usually, I would say something like, “That is a good question, but the answer is a long one. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts about it now, but feel free to come discuss it with me later at lunchtime.”
Only 2 students ever did come later at lunchtime.
And it’s a very difficult question to answer not only because a lot of people aren’t really listening, but also because, although I understand the parents who worry about their English major daughters and the high school students who complain about being bombarded with a lot of useless information, I simply don’t agree with their premises.
Part of me wants to grant those premises and say: Yes! Being an English [or insert other liberal arts here] major is useful! You need to know how to write and think critically no matter what you do! Think about job interviews! Think about college! Look at me!
… Well, okay, don’t look at me, I don’t make any money.
The other part of me resists. It does not want to give in. It wants to say: You know what? You’re right. Being an English [or other liberal arts] major is useless. Completely useless. It won’t help you do better in your football game tonight. It won’t help you in the 10 jobs you are probably considering for your future right now, nor will it help you in hundreds of other decent jobs. And no, it won’t help you make a lot of money. But that’s not the point. I’m not asking you to learn how to write an essay or read this book because it’s useful. I’m asking you to do it because it is good that you do it.
What I really said (once, to one of my juniors) was this: “Okay. Let’s take a minute and think about this. Lots of us like to work out, go running, lift, right? Why?”
“Uh, ’cause coach make us.”
“Okay, yeah, but why does he make you?”
“So we’ll be healthier and stronger. Better.”
“Right. But think about it. Realistically, when in your life are you going to HAVE to run 5-6 miles? I mean, you can choose to if you want to, but it’s not immediately useful to everybody. When in your life are you HAVE to going to lift weights, over and over again?” [I began demonstrating with hand motions here] “Like doing this thing? Yeah, you might have to lift some boxes when you move out of your parents’ house, but you don’t need to kill yourself at the gym to do that.”
I paused, wondering if I was getting anywhere.
“English class is like that. But this time the muscle we’re exercising is your brain. It needs to stretch and move and lift. Yeah, maybe you won’t become a professor or researcher or journalist. Maybe you will never have to write an essay again in your life after you graduate high school. But that’s not the point. It exercises your brain, makes it stronger and healthier. And you will need your brain for the rest of your life.”
Okay, that got a few nods of approval.
But of course that answer did not really satisfy them either. And although I think it is helpful, I don’t think any student chose to major in English because he wanted to “exercise his brain.” He majored in English because he loved it.
Stanley Fish offers an incisive critique of Klinkenborg’s article, and really all liberal-arts lovers’ sentiments, here. Be forewarned, it’s rather depressing. And I am still digesting it.
As much as my heart disagrees with him, I think he’s right. So many of us liberal-arts people do “alternate between grand, un-cashable claims and pie-in-the sky proposals that have no traction because there is barely a suggestion of a road map that might lead to their realization.”
But that’s the difficulty, isn’t it? Aren’t we saying that there is not a clear “road map”? Aren’t we saying that when you look for the truth, you might find yourself going down paths you never thought you’d have the courage to take, or fording through treacherous ideas that only few people have really contended with? And all you really have are your critical thinking skills and your faith to guide you?
But maybe all these are more key terms that are just “spectacularly empty”:
… just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite. (Stanley Fish)
Reader, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Oh, by the way, Stanley Fish. A parting shot: as an English major, I think Emily Dickinson would have this to say about using “spectacularly empty” words. Perhaps we do it intentionally:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—