Thinking, Communicating, Doing

From even just one brief interaction with students and faculty at Brown University, I might have predicted that a leader of that university would be so well suited to make this argument:

…we should embrace the debate about the value of the humanities. Let’s hear the criticisms that are often leveled, and do what we can to address them. Let’s make sure we give value to our students, and that we educate them for a variety of possible outcomes. Let’s do more to encourage cross-pollination between the sciences and the humanities for the benefit of each. Let’s educate all of our students in every discipline to use the best humanistic tools we have acquired over a millennium of university teaching—to engage in a civilized discourse about all of the great issues of our time. A grounding in the humanities will sharpen our answers to the toughest questions we are facing…

Equally worth the few extra minutes is a blog post in another magazine responding to Paxson’s plea:

…Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)

So why have English majors? Well, because many people like books. Most of those like to talk about them after they’ve read them, or while they’re in the middle. Some people like to talk about them so much that they want to spend their lives talking about them to other people who like to listen. Some of us do this all summer on the beach, and others all winter in a classroom. One might call this a natural or inevitable consequence of literacy. And it’s this living, irresistible, permanent interest in reading that supports English departments, and makes sense of English majors.

Bill James dealt with this point wonderfully once, in talking about whether baseball is, as so many people within it insist, really a business, and not a sport at all. Well, James pointed out, if the sporting interest in baseball died, baseball would die; but if the business of baseball died—which, given all those empty ringside seats at Yankee Stadium, doesn’t seem impossible—but the sporting interest persisted, baseball would be altered, but it wouldn’t die. It would just reconstitute itself in a different way.

And so with English departments: if we closed down every English department in the country, loud, good, expert, or at least hyper-enthusiastic readers would still emerge. One sees this happening already, in the steady pulse of reading groups and books clubs which form, in effect, a kind of archipelago of amateur English departments. The woman with the notebook and the detailed parsing of how each love affair echoes each other in “Swann’s Way” is already an English professor manqué. (Or, rather, a comp-lit professor.)

If we abolished English majors tomorrow, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler would not suddenly be freed to use their smarts to start making quantum proton-nuclear reactor cargo transporters, or whatever; they would all migrate someplace where they could still talk Shakespeare and Proust and the rest. Indeed, before there were English professors, there were… English professors. Dr. Johnson was the greatest English professor who ever lived—the great cham of literature, to whom all turned, Harold Bloom plus-plus—and he never had a post, let alone tenure, and his “doctorate” was one of those honorary jobs they give you, after a lifetime of literary labor, for Fine Effort. The best reading and talking about books was, in the past, often done by people who had to make their living doing something else narrowly related: Hazlitt by writing miscellaneous journalism, Sydney Smith by pretending to be a clergyman…

Read the whole post here.

One thought on “Thinking, Communicating, Doing

  1. Pingback: Classics-R-Us | Raxa Collective

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