Gopnik continues: “Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence.” Perfectly expressed. And I’m particularly fond of his conclusion, which ends on the same note of perfectly harmonized resolution as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.”
And yet—when I finished reading the piece, I felt that Gopnik had pulled up somewhat short.
For one thing, Gopnik’s understanding of the present-day English discipline appears somewhat limited; his argument considers English departments solely as sites for literary criticism and interpretation, without considering some of the broader possibilities they offer today such as cultural analysis, instruction in/analysis of writing and rhetoric, and production of new literature.
Beyond that, he’s excessively dismissive of one argument often mounted in favor of the humanities—what he calls the “alternative better-people defense.” Popular belief to the contrary, says Gopnik, English majors (or humanities specialists in general) do not “seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people.” As support, he states that “no one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War.” Similarly, says Gopnik, “Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer.”
Up to a point, I’d agree; as anyone who has been through a graduate program in English knows all too well, advanced study in English—whether we focus on literary criticism, creative writing, cultural studies, composition/rhetoric, or some mix—doesn’t necessarily produce nicer human beings. Nor does it always produce people who are pleasurable to work with. The academic politics of English departments are legendary, and goodness knows our profession has its share of narcissists, outsized egos, and petty grudge-holders.
So, however, do departments of political science, history, psychology, social work, business, law, economics, biology, astronomy, and just about everything else. I think about many (not all) of my own students and colleagues, and many (not all) of my friends—some who majored in English formally, some who just love reading and/or writing, some of whom have four-year degrees and some of whom do not. In fact, many of these people are particularly humane, thoughtful, and open-minded. They’re just not necessarily in the upper echelons of academic English departments (though, to be fair, along with the narcissists and grudge-holders, I have met some wonderfully humane English professors as well). All this makes it difficult for me to toss out the “alternative better-people” argument altogether.
Of course, engaging in all that turns the crank of English geeks doesn’t automatically make us “better” people, and there are also plenty of decent people from other walks of life. But for many people, having a regular practice of placing oneself in the subject-position of another, consciously attempting to view the world through different eyes, does have the effect of making them more empathetic, more socially aware, and less egotistical. (See my prior post on dramatic irony.) Of course it’s true that there are no guarantees; it’s also true that reading and/or writing are not the only paths to such ends. Yet they are viable paths, and proven, even if many who take those paths stumble off the trail.
Yes, the “alternative-better people defense” has its limitations, as Gopnik notes. If you’ll pardon my crudeness, we have all met a few well-read, erudite assholes. But we’ve probably also met many well-read, erudite people who are not. And outside the humanities, I’ve met plenty more people who subscribe to attitudes that are utilitarian, or “bottom-line,” or “me-first,” or “my in-group alone.” I’ve met plenty of people who find it shockingly easy to diminish the humanity of those they consider different—and, therefore, less worthy—than themselves. In short, I’ve met many people who could stand to benefit from what studying the humanities and literature has to offer. There may be no guarantees that everyone who does so will grow more humane. But imagine a world lacking even this possibility.
I wonder, then, if the limitations that Gopnik points out are not so much the fault of the English major as the fault of academia at large—its rigid hierarchies, its cutthroat competition, its tendency toward arrogance. Perhaps we should take into consideration a broader swath of people, not just those at the top of the intellectual pyramid who study or produce literature professionally in an institution that, I would argue, is “always-already” somewhat dysfunctional by its nature.
And beyond academia, perhaps an even larger problem lies in elitism more generally. Gopnik points out that the erudition and literary prowess of the well-read English upper classes did nothing to halt the Great War; could the problem not be literacy per se so much as socioeconomic class, and the hierarchies, dehumanization and blindness it breeds? A similar argument might apply to Gopnik’s point about Victorian factory owners: perhaps Dickens failed to persuade these tycoons not because of the limits of literature, but because they were factory owners, operating from a utilitarian paradigm of profitability at all costs—a paradigm so deeply ingrained that another way of thinking simply wasn’t imaginable to them.
On this point Gopnik seems to undermine his own claim when he adds, “What made them [Victorian factories] nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.” Hey, wait—you mean reading and literature can make a difference after all? Maybe not to people who have been raised all their lives to assume they are somehow innately superior to others, and maybe not to those conditioned to view others not as “human” but as “resources” and therefore to be exploited. But that isn’t everybody, and maybe we would do well to think more about why some of those who read Dickens and Mill might have been moved to take action that mattered.
I agree wholeheartedly when Gopnik states that “English departments democratize the practice of reading,” and that this alone is “a simple but potent act.” Gopnik cites the example of his own father, “the son of a Jewish immigrant butcher and grocer” who became an English professor, as an example of why literacy should be democratized. The pleasures of studying literature, says Gopnik, should not be limited to “those rich enough to have the time to do it.” I’d go a step further and say it’s exactly those of us who are “not rich enough” who deserve the time to do it. If we want the humanities to play a role in making our world more humane, they must be available to people from all walks of life, not just those with economic and/or intellectual privilege.
Particularly problematic, then, is the turn Gopnik takes toward the end of his piece when draws conclusions about why the humanities are beneficial: “No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too.” (Emphasis mine) Is that really all that we’re here for? To amuse future anthropologists? To give the wealthy a cocktail-party topic that might allow them to shift focus momentarily from discussing the stock market? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either. But can’t we aim for a little bit more?
For me, then—beautifully written as Gopnik’s final sentences may be—his final paragraph ultimately pulls up short of its potential. Gopnik quickly dismisses the possibility that the humanities might “produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.’s.” Yet those of us teaching and administrating in English departments know the futility of telling administrators that our programs are justified “because they help us enjoy life more and endure it better.” Administrators, boards of regents, and stakeholders want balanced budgets, unconditional accreditation, students who land decent jobs after graduating, and future alumni who can donate. Try writing a program review that rationalizes spending money on your program with “we’re human [and] that’s enough,” and you will be told, “Sorry, not enough.” It also won’t be enough for students who are careening toward a lifetime of indebtedness, especially as tuition fees and textbook prices spiral out of control. Of course this statement is true; it’s just that it is not enough, especially when it comes to making the arguments we must make if we are to keep our programs financially viable.
Perhaps, then, we should be thinking about how studying the humanities might “produce shrewder entrepreneurs” or “kinder C.E.O.’s.” (Right now the world could certainly use more of both.) Perhaps we should be thinking about the larger implications of “democratiz[ing] the practice of reading" (and writing)--rather than only considering how it might benefit society’s elite. I don’t disagree with Gopnik about the inherent value of the English major, or about the emptiness (and impossibility) of an entirely utilitarian society, or about the need for symbolic purpose— for “Doing Something Else.” On those points, as I said, I not only agree with Gopnik, I love the way he expresses them. But by themselves, these are not “enough.”
If we’re going to keep English and other humanities majors alive in the academy, we must position ourselves to meet the sometimes onerous demands that characterize education in the twenty-first century. We must help our students find viable career paths, and we must learn how to articulate some of the practical ways in which students from all walks of life can benefit by studying what we teach. We must do this in addition to (not “instead of”) the more idealized vision that Gopnik expresses. And we must embrace, rather than resist, the “alternative better-people defense”—not in a way that diminishes other majors or pursuits, but in a way that emphasizes how and why studying the humanities holds the possibility of making us more humane.
Not least of all, we need to reject elitism in all its forms. Rather than pointing to those at the top of the pyramid (whether financial or intellectual) as examples of how the humanities has failed to make people “better,” we need to work toward a world in which a majority of people believe that all human lives have inherent value. I completely agree that majoring in English can “help us enjoy life more and endure it better." But that's not necessarily at odds with producing employable English majors, or being able to articulate the value of studying English not only as it pertains to the world of ideas but also as it pertains to the marketplace.
Finally, we must embrace rather than resist the belief that literature and the humanities can make us more humane. For that will always be what makes the humanities most powerful. While there will always be those who “miss the memo," that does not mean the memo shouldn’t be written.