Dispatches | July 03, 2013

The English major is becoming extinct. The humanities are on a respirator. Or so you might believe if you’ve read the half a dozen articles declaring the decline of the discipline. Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic‘s literary editor, opened his Brandeis University commencement speech with the inspirational words: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” Like a professor’s addiction to caffeine, we’re so enamored with technology and information that we forget the arts, Wieseltier claims. “There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image,” he writes. Go forth, humanities students!

However, New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks we’re the problem. “They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise,” he writes. According to Brooks, real humanities are about the study of “truth, beauty and goodness” not the political issues of race, class and gender. Yet Brooks misses the crucial point — if the humanities don’t evolve as we do then they will truly be obsolete.

When in doubt, blame the economy and parental panic as author and New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg does. “What is an English major good for?” is a common refrain out of parents’ mouths as they sign the latest tuition check, he writes. In our S.T.E.M. and skills obsessed market, being able to think, read and write clearly aren’t as important as getting the job (which apparently doesn’t require you to think?).

The humanities has been limping along for awhile now (and in actuality, the number of humanities majors has halved from 1966 to 2010), and the doctors have done their check up, but there is no evident consensus; the only thing they can seem to agree on is that the English major and the like are dangerously close to becoming obsolete. This is a funny thought, though, because I write this from a couch in the TMR office surrounded by fellow English major interns even younger than I am. There are 16 of us, and even with double majors and minors, everyone has or will have a bachelor’s of English to his or her name. This is apparently one of the larger summer classes TMR has ever had, and yet the English student is changing his or her major to something more “practical”?

Of course, practical is an ambiguous word and changes by the year and the hiring market. To some, practical means majoring in marketing, accounting or engineering. To me, it means getting a journalism master’s. I studied English as an undergraduate, which meant spending four years writing papers on Neil Gaiman and dodging my favorite conversation at dinner parties of my parents’ friends: “So what do you study?” curious friend asks.  “English,” I reply. “Oh, well so you want to teach?” friend asks with concern. “No, I’m more interested in writing,” I reply. “Well, you would make an excellent lawyer,” friend replies with skepticism. What they didn’t know was that I had a trump card — a plan to get a journalism master’s.

Throughout my four years of debating Jane Austen in class, I wrote for any university paper or blog I could get my hands on during my spare time. I wanted to study something I truly enjoyed for my bachelor’s while pursuing something more skills-oriented on the side. Now at graduate school, The Missouri School of Journalism is teaching me a lot of transferable skills: how to copy edit, how to write a lede and nut graf, how to use InDesign, etc. But I find myself drawing from my four years at my other “useless” major even more.

Studying English gave me a context to everything else I do right now. It taught me what good writing can be from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poetic sentences to Ernest Hemingway’s stark prose (the latter started as a journalist.) As anyone who has ever read a book will know, novels can teach you more than how metaphors work: Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi gave me a brief education in world religion; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man introduced me to what it’s like to be an African-American man in America in the 20th century;  Emily Dickinson taught me just how haunting and effective a few short lines can be.  The beauty of the humanities is you can study everything (including the more practical fields) under the guise of English, philosophy, history, etc. Most importantly, studying English taught me how to think critically — to not take things at face value, to challenge, to analyze, to make connections — which are skills you need not just as a journalist but as a responsible citizen.

Maybe the real answer to the precarious job market and the waning field of humanities is that we need to redefine “practical.” A useful degree is not necessarily the most financially viable or the most skill-laden, but the one that gives us a context for how to use those skills. After all, studying the humanities keeps us connected to knowledge and to each other.