I’m sure you’ve all heard about the latest salvo in the war against the liberal arts. You know, I used to get exceptionally exercised about reports like this. I used to worry that it would mean the end of the world as I know it, the end of the world as I want it to be, etc.
And now I’m tired. Because you know what? As soon as some person makes this sort of a claim, there is a huge shitstorm, and then, guess what, it turns out that nothing much changes.
I know, I’m that person who didn’t stand up when the Nazis came for my neighbor next door, and then my next neighbor and my next neighbor and then there was nobody to fight for me when they come for me. I get it, I do. I’m supposed to be filled with righteous indignation and rage and all that.
Just like I’m supposed to be all angry because there isn’t a humanities person on the main committee for my university’s strategic plan (though, as far as I can tell, very few – almost no – humanities folks put their names forward, and those who did got put on “working groups” that report to the main committee, which is mainly a clearing-house committee that has to deal with all the things but isn’t actually all that involved in the vision for the plan).
I can’t do it anymore. The energy that it takes for me to be pissed off about these things actually takes me away from making the liberal arts – specifically the humanities, specifically literature – exciting and interesting for my students. And nothing much I’ve done to fight the good fight has made much difference in policy decisions, looking back. Also: my colleagues in Business and Health Professions and all those sexy employable majors really think that their students need to take my courses. And they are even cool with the small percentage of students that major in English majoring in English. And my students are alright, because, guess what? My students, by and large, go on to get jobs. They teach, they work in offices, they go to graduate school, they start businesses. No, they don’t have a job that directly links to the English major, most of them. So it’s not like how if you major in “information technology” you then become an IT guy. But that doesn’t mean that they are unemployed or that they are a drain on the economy.
Look, I’ve got a cousin who majored in accounting. She graduated from college this spring, and she was unemployed and just hanging out for four months. And now she’s working in a job that has nothing to do with her degree. Yes, that’s a sample size of one. But my point is this: how is this a “more valuable” major than one in the liberal arts? That’s right: it isn’t. A particular major doesn’t guarantee any single student a particular life path or a particular career path. And you know what? Since that’s the case, it’s probably a good idea to major in something that is more than a job training program, because it will be easier to adapt if you do. But the liberal arts, the humanities, or even something as specific as English probably aren’t for everyone, or even for most students. That is just fine. It doesn’t, however, mean that those disciplines are without value for those students who gravitate for them.
Here’s a funny thing about the way that I see the work that I do. I don’t actually strive to replicate myself, and I don’t actually prefer to teach majors. English majors can be real pains in the ass. You know what I really strive to do as a professor? I really strive to teach students that literature and writing and reading are things that have the potential to enrich their lives, no matter what “job” they end up working at. Because you know what I care about? I care about educating them, regardless of the major that they declare. Fancy that.