Pope Is Pretty Puissant

universityBack in the ’90s my daughter was showing her academic strengths at High School and, to the delight of her father, also developing in sports and social relationships. But so much of her direction was being primed by her father, the English Major and book reader. The Kid went on to college, earning a double major in English and French, admirable grades and honors, and went on to graduate school to get her PhD in Comparative Literature. She now teaches film studies and various humanities courses in the English Department at a major university. Along the way the idea of concentrating in the Humanities was considered so inane that I felt I had to lend my support.

When I was in Graduate School I studied literature (17th Century Restoration Drama) and learned to program computers at night in an effort to keep food on the table. You would have thought that the combination of Alexander Pope and FORTRAN was strange but the man who hired me explained that to be a good programmer you needed to think analytically and that was the type of thinking you learned in the Humanities.

This was the start of my insistence on the primary importance of critical thinking, no matter what you selected as your career-path during school and after graduation. Back then students did not actually study their chosen fields in undergraduate school. If you wanted to be a lawyer, an economist, or a doctor, what did you study as an undergraduate? Well, I learned when I first declared my major at the university that many of my classmates were intending to be doctors, economists, or lawyers. These future professionals were studying the Humanities because that was the way you learned to think.

Nowadays they seem to have skipped this important skill: do you suspect that Louis Gohmert ever learned to think? The evidence suggests that he didn’t. What the likes of Gohmert learned in school was how to follow a path to riches and power. You start by selecting a lucrative professional trade, like being a lawyer; then you focus on studying how to be a lawyer and how to make the most money doing it. Then you become a lawyer and if you are supremely lucky, you parlay you legal muscles into legislative muscles, and maybe hit the big-time of greed as a lobbyist or a corporate spokesman.

This is the American Dream now and at no time did it require the use of critical thinking.

I remember buying my daughter a small book showing the wide application of the Humanities in many seemingly unrelated careers. I argued then that college was turning into a white-collar vocational school at the expense of developing the mushy brains that kids brought from High School. I still believe that: High School begins to align your gray cells to ready them for the demands of critical thinking that will come in college.

An article in Salon by Aaron R. Hanlon speaks to this same issue and I highly recommend going to the Salon site to read the complete article. It is titled

Hey, college kids: Major in John Oliver and Neil deGrasse Tyson

and captioned,

Politicians of both parties deride the humanities. Instead, let’s support critical thinking, deride underpaid labor.

Just a taste (read it all at Salon):

Those of us with a vested interest in the humanities certainly have reasons to be concerned; but if we move past the hand-wringing for a moment and examine this crisis of the humanities, it becomes clear that the crisis doesn’t actually belong to the humanities at all.

In fact, one of the most valuable lessons of humanistic inquiry — the ability to think capaciously, akin to what historians David Armitage and Jo Guldi recently identified as long-term thinking — reveals for us the extent to which we’ve been misled by data on the humanities crisis. In particular, a focus on the declining number of humanities majors distracts us from the fact that humanities enrollments — students majoring in whatever who take humanities credits in college — have remained quite strong. A recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences study on enrollments finds that students who graduated in 2008 actually earned more credits in the humanities than in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). …

My experience at Georgetown University reflects as much: Most of the students in my English classes are not English majors, though enrollments in English classes remain strong at the University. Further, my non-English-major students are actually pretty interested in literature, history, philosophy and art. For so many of them, the opportunity to take a humanities class between the abundant requirements of their more “vocational” majors in the schools of business or foreign service is a welcome chance to cultivate marginalized interests and think critically about some very germane topics. For example, everyone interested the role of women in science today should know about Margaret Cavendish, one of the only women to publish scientific writing during the 17th-century Scientific Revolution. Anyone interested in knowing how Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, or John Oliver set up their compelling comedic arguments would find a breakdown of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” both illuminating and useful.

Pope Indeed, students maintain interest in such material both within and beyond the classroom. The average young adult might rather lounge on a futon and watch Netflix than sit up at a desk in my classroom and analyze “The Rape of the Lock”; but as classes go, and enrollments show, Pope is pretty puissant. Perhaps this is part of why language from Pope’s poetry, like “fools rush in,” “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” and “to err is human, to forgive, divine” remains with us after all this time.

So, no, the humanities per se are not in a death spiral, neither by raw enrollment figures nor by widespread interest in the kinds of subject matter and questions of value that humanities classes examine. The real crisis in the humanities is not of the humanities. We haven’t become a nation of philistines with decreased interest in humanistic inquiry; we’ve become a nation with increased anxiety about taking interest in anything other than making money. …

The crisis in the humanities, then, is really just an aftershock of the widespread crisis of neoliberalism, which encumbers all sectors it throws into crisis (arts and humanities, higher education, K-12 education, the public sector) with the mantle of bearing the name and blame for the destruction neoliberalism has wrought. …

Somehow, educators and institutions of education have taken the brunt of criticism for failing society in so many ways, as if growth-minded universities are more responsible than growth-obsessed American society for producing what Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep,” uncultivated, one-dimensional souls. …

To what extent has a reliance on markets to make (or bypass) determinations of value placed America in crisis on numerous fronts?

That last line bears repeating but let me rephrase it as I see it:

images-3Greed and stupidity are destroying this country yet these same people claim it’s the educated “elitists” that are the problem. But how can we accept their pronouncements when they’re too stupid to know the difference? And let’s accept a broader definition of “stupid.” It’s not smart to grab wealth from others, to legislate inequality, to accumulate all the toys and then die, especially when the final Jeopardy round is for the survival of life as we know it on this planet.

One response

  1. As the child of parents who studied the humanities, I remember being shocked at the emphasis on vocational training when I first started college. I was obviously very naive, but I had taken it for granted that the purpose of college was to pursue your interests and broaden your horizons; I had known a few people who entered with the goal of eventually becoming a lawyer/doctor/etc., but to me, they seemed like the outliers. Now, of course, I think about the money-grubbing bent of higher education (and, as you say, society at large) constantly, both as a genuine ideological concern and as a personal grievance, since it’s increasingly difficult to earn any kind of living wage if you didn’t choose a “lucrative” degree; so far, I’ve been unable to translate two degrees in English into anything more than part time work that doesn’t even require a BA.

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