Why choose to be an English major? Why choose to study language and literature? According to University of Virginia Professor of English Mark Edmundson, one big reason is to be able to find new ways to say you are better than everyone else. Edmundson’s essay boils my blood, because his disdain for other people like politicians, economists and athletes, sadly typical in the academy, spills over into disdain for their knowledge. While seeming to celebrate literature and becoming an English major, Edmundson shows that his elitism is stronger than his love of knowledge. This is a sad revelation for someone purportedly in favor of a broad liberal arts education. It is also horribly counterproductive for our profession and the institutions that support it.
Edmundson’s essay is apparently adapted from his forthcoming book “Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education.” Here are some choice quotes:
Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.
But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on.
The economics major lives in facts and graphs and diagrams and projections. Fair enough.
Defense of the life of the mind by policing the boundaries of real knowledge is bound to fail. Extolling the benefits of college by insulting other domains of knowledge will only create more hateful Forbes columns. This is not the rhetorical flourish that vanquishes the Helens Dragas of the world. This way just leads to more bitter columns by bitter academics. As it should. If we are in the business of sharing the wonder of knowledge, then we need to drop the vague mysticism of “there are readers and there are readers.” Take a small drop of that celebrated imagination supposedly thought to dwell deep in the heart of every English major, and think about why economists might think their field is important. Economics majors do not “live in facts and graphs and diagrams” any more than an English major lives in the alphabet. Economics is the study of human decisions. Someone who studies health economics or the effects of poverty or labor markets doesn’t do it because they enjoy the pretty colors that excel offers. They like finding patterns in human behavior. Sometimes they apply that knowledge so that more English majors can eat. They are not doing this because they are soulless automatons.
The irony (am I using that word correctly? just a half-souled history of science major here) of Edmundson’s exclusive view of the ideal English major is that he closes with an expansive definition of higher education, then restricts it to the English major:
We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.
Inquiry! Absolutely. This is a wonderful and worthy goal of higher education. The center of higher education is a process of inquiry, But no single domain of knowledge has a monopoly on inquiry. The biology major who spends hours in the lab will learn the value of scientific inquiry. But they will also learn ethics and empathy. The political science major will learn about voting patterns, legislative logrolling, and empty rhetoric, but will find their own passion underneath the strategy, will find inspiration in stories in revolutions. Does only the English major get to read Lincoln’s second inaugural? Can’t historians and political scientists find something deep in those words?
In short, there is joy, wonder, passion, frailty, good and evil in literature to be sure. But there is humanity in every other major too. Knowledge in all its many forms is wonderful. The poem, the atom and the dinosaur can all lead us to deep questions about ourselves and our place in the world. Wouldn’t that be a more fitting message for someone defending a Real Education?