Alex Reid responds the rise and fall of the English major articles written recently by Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Brooks, and Steve Strauss.

All three articles talk about the value of an education based in the humanities and English, and as Reid comments, it's a myth. Take, for example, Klinkenborg's assertion:

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

That's odd: Professors unable to tell their students how valuable the humanities are? Still let's look at this "gift."

Lifelong engagement with literature? The humanities include not only literature but also religion, philosophy, languages, history, and so on. How did "the most fundamental gift of the humanities" get narrowed down to literature?

Clear thinking? Remember Alan Sokal's hoax?

Clear writing? Back in the 90s, Denis Hutton established the Bad Writing Contest because, as he writes,

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Even if literature were to facilitate clear writing, that writing would be limited to a specific form of writing as writing varies across disciplines. In the well-known study of Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman, "Nate", a first-year doctoral student in a rhetoric program who wrote with a journalistic prose style, had difficulty adapting to the writing style expected in his new disciplinary community. In other words, "good" and "clear" writing (and clear thinking) is disciplinary and context specific.

These arguments aren't new. James Jay Greenough, mathematician and scientist, wrote 100 years ago that a liberal education should include not only literature, but also languages, math, science, history, and geography. As he writes,

In short, every subject enlarges the student's mind, and stores this enlarged mind with knowledge. Such a requirement of a broad range of subjects seems to be a good foundation for a liberal education.

Yet, Greenough's position on learning Latin and Greek is similar to Klinkenborg's on literature:

The desire to banish all studies which are not to be of immediate money value to the student, which has given rise to the discussion of the comparative usefulness of ancient and modern languages, has caused many persons to overlook the true value of a right study of Latin and Greek. The study of them is valuable to every man for the mental training which they give much more than for the knowledge of ancient life and literature which is obtained through them. This knowledge can be and often is obtained by reading English translations of the classics, and modern works on ancient art, life, and literature; but this training can be got only by the study of the languages themselves. The man who says his Greek or Latin is of no use to him in business or elsewhere does not realize that if he really studied either language his powers of thinking were increased, even though he has forgotten every fact learned about the language itself.

While Klinkenborg asserts that clear thinking comes through the study of literature, Greenough says that "powers of thinking" come only through the study of Latin and Greek. Schopenhauer goes further, asserting,

If the threatened calamity should ever come, and the ancient languages cease to be taught, a new literature shall arise, of such barbarous, shallow and worthless stuff as never was seen before.

One myth has supplanted another, but they are the same in that a disappearing study is essential for developing the mind. I wonder what Klinkenborg would say if she knew that the new literature of English was "barbarous, shallow and worthless." I also wonder what sort of "clear thinking" is involved when myths are proclaimed without examining their assumptions.

Associated Readings
The Heart of the Matter (2013). American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Bérubé, Michael (November 10, 2010). Breaking News: Humanities in Decline! Film at 11.
Berkenkotter, Carol, Thomas Huckin, and John Ackerman (1988). Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22(1), 9-44.
Brooks, David (June 21, 2013). The Humanist Vocation. The New York Times
Butler, Judith (March 20, 1999). A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back.
Chace, William M. (2009). The Decline of the English Department. The American Scholar.
Fish, Stanley (January 6, 2008). Will the Humanities Save Us?. The New York Times
Fish, Stanley (January 13, 2008). The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two. The New York Times
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. The Rise and Fall of the English Major. The New York Times
Marks, Jonathan (June 13, 2013). Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities). Commentary Magazine.
Maurer, Karl (n.d.) Why Study Classics?.
Nussbaum, Martha (November 28, 2000). The Professor of Parody.
Our Arts Critic Responds to the 'Useless Majors' List. (April 23, 2012).
Reid, Alex. (June 25, 2013). The Rise and Fall of the English Major Editorial.
Schmidt, Ben (June 26, 2013). Gender and the Long-Term Decline in Humanities Enrollment.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 18, 2013). Humanities Committee Sounds Alarm. The New York Times.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 27, 2013). Quants ask: What Crisis in Humanities?. The New York Times.
Silbey, Dave (June 10, 2013). A Crisis in the Humanities?. The Chronicle.
Silver, Nate (June 25, 2013). As More Attend College, Careers Become More Focused. The New York Times.
Smith, Dinitia (February 27, 1999). When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing.
Strauss, Steve (June 23, 2013). Why I Hire English Majors. The Huffington Post.
The 13 Most Useful Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 25, 2012). Newsweek.
The 13 Most Useless Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 23, 2012). Newsweek.
Weismann, Jordan (June 24, 2013). Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis. The Atlantic.
Weismann, Jordan (June 25, 2013). The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers. The Atlantic.