|A famous portrait assumed|
to be Christopher Marlowe
I recalled this scene while reading Nina Handler’s lament, “Facing My Own Extinction,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education online. Handler, coordinator of English at Holy Names University in Oakland, California, looks both forward and backward as she makes peace with her school’s abolition of the English major. Her school, she laments, has become a preprofessional training seminar, where any class without a career payout gets dismissed as unnecessary.
It’s tempting to defend English for transcendental ideals, like that people who read are better able to have empathy, or that it potentially immunizes democracies against tyranny. But these arguments basically persuade the already persuaded. The educational reformers aggressively pushing STEM-focused curricula, subsidized by captains of industry and legislators desperate to not look backward, won’t hear such arguments, because they already disbelieve or dismiss them.
Instead, let’s contemplate the very material rewards that come from a diverse liberal arts curriculum. Two authors I’ve recently reviewed, Christian Madsbjerg and Scott Sonenshein, both write that business success and diverse education go hand in hand. Both authors observe something I’ve observed, though they have better source notes: specialists know how to do one thing well. But they’re incapable of adapting to changing economic, business, or professional conditions.
This isn’t only about English. In History, for instance, certain ideas are objectively correct, and therefore testable on a Scantron sheet. The last successful invasion of England, for instance, was objectively in 1066. But why? What made William the Conqueror able to sack England and take the throne, while Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion, much more thoroughly planned and backed with more advanced technology, got abandoned even after the Luftwaffe?
Don’t mistake this for abstruse woolgathering. America has a president who thinks Andrew Jackson could've posthumously prevented the Civil War, and an administration that thinks “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” These people, with the ability to guide the economy or take America to war, demonstrate a palpable lack of awareness about the weighty economic, social, historical, and military factors that shaped history, and continue shaping the present.
Perceptive readers will notice I haven’t really made a concrete argument for the English major specifically. Despite name-checking literary characters and historical events, I’ve made a more broad-based argument for a diverse liberal arts education. You’re right. Locking youths into an academic program, and resulting career path, at age 18, seems ridiculous to me. Like Faustus, they should choose their specialization only after gaining a diverse general foundation.
A handful of colleges and universities have followed this path. St. John’s College of Annapolis and Santa Fe comes to mind, as do Thomas Aquinas College and Reed College. These schools have softened or abolished undergraduate major departments, focusing on a diverse grounding in humanities and sciences. By contrast, Holy Names and other schools not only lock students into career tracks, they’re narrowing the number of tracks available.
Remember Doctor Faustus. Having chosen his discipline based upon earthly rewards, he gets the knowledge he seeks quickly. But he almost immediately declines into a shadow of himself, conjuring famous shades for kings like a carny barker, and playing horse pranks on foolish yokels. At his death, even God won’t take him back. Because knowledge isn’t supposed garner worldly payouts, it’s supposed to create a full and rounded soul.