on the Humanities

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal asked – “Who ruined the humanities?”

The writer’s premise is that students of art and literature are at a disadvantage when studying at a university, where a rigid pedagogy is imposed on works that should be considered personally and at leisure, thus leaving the students with no real benefit upon graduating but having soaked up and learned to reproduce the opinions of professors. The article is rich with opinion and gives an interesting history of literature studies that I didn’t encounter at all during my years of college.

He writes:

Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.

The notion that great literature can help you with reading and thinking clearly is also a chimera.

This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that.

Some … pitiable non-humanities majors might not be interested in literature at all. They might have to settle for searching for a cure for cancer, and things like that.

My initial reaction to the eloquent but inflammatory statements was defensive – I am a happy, successful young professional working for a company the same publication praises in another section for it’s potential and vision – as I do my ‘real’ job, I’m simultaneously filming documentary video of my workplace for the WSJ to judge in their ‘Startup of the Year’ competition. My studies in English have in no way disturbed my career progress, so the author must be crazy. Majoring in the humanities has had no negative effect on my life.

Sitting with the idea for a few days, I started to form a second opinion. Maybe I was looking at this from the wrong angle. Perhaps it isn’t in the workplace where English majors end up suffering, but away from it. We’re adept at talking our way into meetings and charming executives. Our communication skills and ability to interpret abstract concepts and complex narratives put us at an advantage in any field. Unfortunately, we end up taking  more of our stumbles outside of the office.

It’s in the sappy voicemails, late night texts, and unprovoked confessions where we scramble to retain a happy medium. It’s in personal relationships that the English major’s education might be an albatross. Because we sprinkle a concoction of tender adjectives on every passing glance, because we inscribe every innocent comment with depths of hidden meaning. Because we thought critically about Juliet, Werther, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina – we might be more sensitive to the same kinds of drama in our own lives.

(I certainly don’t have any data backing up this suggestion – nor have I even asked any other English majors – simply banking on my own experience. Maybe I’m judging harshly.)

My course selections could have had more influence on how to understand ‘love’ than other classes might have – if there were a survey of Grisham and Crichton novels instead of 19th century Romantics, I could have ended up with a shaper ear for legal briefings and popular science as opposed to scandal and heartbreak, so it’s not like I didn’t make the bed myself. C’est la vie.

I don’t agree with the author that the study of literature in a university is completely useless. Many of the works I read I wouldn’t have encountered anywhere else. Ingénu that I am, it wasn’t until I was enrolled in an English program that I cared who Twain, Goethe, or Tolstoy were.

Exposure to works I wouldn’t have otherwise bothered with, and participating in discussions that validated my opinions of and interest in what I was reading, made the courses worthwhile.

I also had the pleasant opportunity to learn a handful of fancy words, and in turn begin using them daily to describe the unbelievably indescribable thing that is life. So there’s that, too.

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