Taking on the New Yorker on the English Major

September 12, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Education

Last month the New Yorker wrote a defense of learning and teaching English. It says English Departments are under attack.

What kind of fool would take on the magazine many call the best in English about English? I guess I’m that kind of fool. I wrote the following in the comments.

 “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because … they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

This article’s length with minimal substance made me feel like someone who likes reading and writing wanted to show others who like reading and writing how good he was at reading and writing. I hoped to find something other than chummy self-satisfaction, name dropping, and jaunty bons mots — sorry, bromides and platitudes — but didn’t.

I quote its closing sentences to call out what it missed: “they help us enjoy life more and endure it better” … Better than what? “Better” means comparison. Better than skipping college? Better than other majors? Better than staring at a brick wall? You don’t have to quantify everything, but if you suggest a comparison, compare. People whose majors involved studying nature or math would get this. I don’t know anyone who enjoys life more or endures it better than I do — a physics major, later physics PhD, later MBA — so his would-be comparison fails my first test, anecdotal as it is.

The same follows for “That’s enough.” He’s talking about values, implying a threshold of enough, and further implying some standard. But he doesn’t set one. He could have said more honestly “I think that’s enough,” “I hope that’s enough,” or “That’s enough for me, I hope it is for you too.”

What’s enough, by the way? He illogically leapt from discussing English majors to the humanities in general. The “enough” of the last paragraph doesn’t even apply to the main subject of the essay, except combined with a host of other departments.

Setting a vague standard leads statements that superficially appear meaningful and authoritative to mean only author’s opinion. Nothing wrong with an author’s opinion, but when it follows an essay that doesn’t compare what it purports to, it undermines the author’s support, at least if you read the essay critically. Isn’t that what the major purports to teach?

Personally I value the humanities as much as the sciences and, for that matter, vocational and other forms of learning. My college’s core curriculum mandated reading plenty and I wholeheartedly support that approach for those who like it. I’ll note that most literature I read, while in English, had been written in other languages, undermining the essay’s connections between English and books or literature in general. Isn’t this essay more about literature than English anyway? Accepting what the essay says about literature, did I miss particular value in English books over ones in other languages?

I’ll also note that I recall comparing the amount of written material I handed in in my senior year with several humanities majors and found I had written more, much of it in the “language” of mathematics — a stunningly beautiful language to those who understand it. Few humanities students deigned to study math or nature enough to find that beauty, though the majority of science students I knew did the reverse.

I began reading the piece because I love the New Yorker. I began reading it predisposed to support the humanities in the face of common criticisms from many non-humanities people. I ended reading it thinking less of the English major for its self-satisfaction in the face of innumeracy and ignorance of nature.

I support his conclusion but find his argument undermines it. I submit he could have conveyed the same meaning more concisely with “Why teach and study English? Because people value studying it and teaching it enough to maintain the institutions that support it.”

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