In Defense of English Majors, Part III

I have written two other posts about this:

Part I

Part II

Yes. Yes yes yes.

Over at The New Criterion, Mark Bauerlein takes up the recent flurry of articles, blog posts, research studies and news stories about the decline of “the humanities” in education.

And he entices us with a fantastic title that I could not resist, and hopefully you can’t either:

“What Dido did, Satan saw and O’Keeffe painted.”

He very rightly points out that most of the people who are attempting to salvage or defend or praise the humanities are doing it in the wrong way. They say things like: studying the humanities makes us critical thinkers! The great books help us to be better businesspeople! The liberal arts “free” us and make us nicer! Companies are actually looking for English majors who can string a coherent sentence together! All this reading and writing pays off.

Perhaps you are already seeing the ridiculous mistake.

A taste of Bauerlein’s analysis:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities. (Bauerlein, “What Dido Did,” The New Criterion)

Yes, this is the problem.


When I worked as a marketing intern in the Admissions Office at UD, I encountered it frequently. How can one possibly market a Catholic liberal arts education in this economy? How can we show parents that spending their money on us will be worth it? What accolades can we cite? What statistics do we have? What successful graduates can we laud?

Bauerlein also points out that not only are the anti-utilitarians making utilitarian arguments, they are also missing the real thing itself. What do they mean by “the humanities,” exactly? What subjects? What books? They avoid that rather obvious question altogether.

The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. (Ibid)

My guess is that this is because “the humanities,” if you sat down and tried to name the authors you meant by that euphemism, are mostly dead white men (with notable exceptions). And in today’s culture, it is very unpopular to extol the wisdom of dead white men.

Moreover, the “outcomes” these humanities defenders insist make the vague and undefined humanities worthwhile are also always too vague and undefined to be convincing. (“Critical thinking skills?” What is that anyway? And didn’t we learn that in high school? “Global citizenship?” “Being more human?”) Nobody will argue with these noble outcomes, but nobody will sacrifice a $100,000 a year paycheck for them either.

Pardon yet another quote, but I think Bauerlein just might be referring to UD students here:

People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days. (Ibid)

Although we spend a lot more than “a month” there. Ahem.

Interestingly enough, I think his main point here has a lot to do with the problem I was exploring in my Dissecting the Frog post. As English teachers, how do we balance inspiring our students to experience the mystery of the story, and at the same time demand rigorous analysis, while never turning that story into a mere specimen to be picked apart so that it is no longer recognizable? I don’t know how, exactly. I’m fumbling my way toward it.

Another part of the problem I have noticed is this: as Flannery says, “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it” (Mystery and Manners, via The problem is that high school is democratic — it is for everybody. Increasingly, and perhaps for all practical purposes now, so is college. So how do you teach art to everybody? To the students who don’t want to be there and who could care less about art?

The wide-eyed optimistic teacher in me would say, “But they do care. They just don’t know it yet! Or maybe they don’t right now, but they will, once I show them how beautiful Homer is. Because they are human and they are drawn to goodness, beauty and truth.”

The first few months of teaching in ACE almost cured me of that delusion, though strangely I still cling to it.

In class, the other day, I was trying to get my kids to get beyond their hatred of reading anything remotely challenging so that they could see, for a moment, the horror of Achilles dragging Hector’s body around the walls of Troy. So I told them to stop, put their pens down, pick their heads up, and look at me. Then, silently calling upon the Muses to sing in me the wrath of Achilles, I described the scene to them in my own clumsy words.


In that fifth period class, there was a long silence afterward– especially because I tried to draw for them Priam and Hecube and Andromache with little baby Astyanax staring down from the wall, transfixed in horror.

Yet my words are not Homer’s — and they are not even Edith Hamilton’s. But what do you do when your students won’t even bother reading Hamilton’s?

“Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty” (Bauerlein).

Yet not all of them will choose to participate. Not all of them will care. Most of them will never bother with “the humanities” because they are “boring” and “I don’t get it” and “this is hard, Ms. Shea.” And maybe it is not even right of me to demand that they care. I am sure that God does not want everyone to be an English major. Scientists, politicians, and businessmen are noble professions too.

But perhaps some of my students will care, no matter to what vocation they are ultimately called — and these students may not always be the ones you (or I) would expect.

As Flannery says,

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose via

6 thoughts on “In Defense of English Majors, Part III

  1. What matters is that you are helping them find their own vocations. If they are not interested in humanities, then you have a victory in helping them realize this. Well done! 🙂

  2. Maura, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy each of your posts! I seriously get excited every time you come up in my RSS feed. Your posts about balancing/integrating the experience of literature with rigorous analysis has given me so much excellent raw thinking material, and helped me put into words some of the very profound tensions I’ve felt in my teaching the past few years. Also, I’ve shamelessly stolen so many ideas, poems, and insights from you. In conclusion, you’re wonderful! Keep writing!

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