Why Study of the Humanities Is a Disaster on College Campuses


Colleges might as well do away with English, History, Philosophy… so that a spiritually sedated people may wake up and resurrect them rather than presume that academic Judases are looking after them.

What’s wrong with college education? A subject for a book, that… but I can get at a good bit of what’s wrong with college English departments by reviewing a department meeting that I sat through last week.

The usual stuff first: a lecture on how to do this, that, and the other through the labyrinthine and ever-changing protocol of the university’s website. An immense amount of money has gone into digitalizing even the simplest matters of recording and information-sharing. We used to do all of this with paper: forms and memos were intelligible, cheap, and… and speedy, compared to all the time that one must now sacrifice learning (or re-learning) how to access a page that needs updating once or twice a year. What a boondoggle! What a travesty of progress!

Then a lot of direct discussion about money matters: how much money this online course brings in, how much money in bonuses that administrator gets for inflating enrollment figures, how much money is available for travel (i.e., taxpayer-funded vacations where academics read papers that might just as easily have been posted online; all of our institutional exchanges must happen on the Web, though we might just as readily walk down the hall and speak to each other—but a paper on gender categories in Jane Austen has to been read aloud).

This is the point in every meeting where I’m glad that I am old and soon to retire. But now things become particularly interesting.

Tenured Professor One, who has so few students and so little to do that she has appointed herself the departmental “outreach and recruitment” officer, warbles on for several minutes about how many jobs are available to English majors and how many our own recent grads have gobbled up. The little newsletter over which she endlessly busies herself will, in its latest edition, chronicle the success of our former students at snaring administrative positions in multi-tiered bureaucracies. Oh, happy day! And the professor’s research has uncovered that Matt Damon was an English major; he has been contacted about the possibility of contributing a piece to the fall edition. Stay tuned.

So I’ve been doing this for… how many years? And I might have been a senior official in the FBI if I had only applied?

Tenured Professor Two (but second only in that she always insists on having the floor last of all) now dramatically encapsulates her recent experiences within the state capital’s inner sancta. (She, too, obviously has very little to worry about in the way of class-teaching.) She grimly announces that seven out of ten college graduates are unemployed during their first year of life “out there”. This leads to further observations (of the sort with which she concludes every meeting) about the need to overhaul what we professors do. We must find new and better ways of expressing our professional wizardry to the great unwashed. We already teach people how to think—no doubt about it. Critical thinking, analytical thinking, research techniques, persuasive techniques… we do all of this all the time, and yet the general public believes that our students merely (curl of the nose) “read stories”! We should have a “business bootcamp” during the summer session. We should have a hybrid Business/English degree. We should… we should…

The department chair chimes in that our classification under the Humanities is an historical curiosity that has lived to create more liability than advantage. She beautifully elocutes just what the study of literature is supposed to do, traditionally, for the cultivation of the human within that complex primate, homo sapiens. Then she reiterates that we need to get away from cultivating such a useless and outdated fantasy.

I’m ready for my cyanide pill.

A few short minutes ago, Tenured Professor One had unveiled to an admiring world that our English graduates were being courted by IBM, AT&T, the FBI, the CIA, NSA, the RSPCA… and then Tenured Professor Two, showing real or feigned agreement with One, declares that our discipline will dry up and blow away if we do not rhetorically set it on a “business” footing. Of course, the lead-in to this remark was that 70% of graduates fail to find work within a year (the successful 30% presumably much beholden to Tenured Professor One and her newsletter), so… so rewording our course descriptions is somehow supposed to eat into the unemployment figures. I think. Must be that. We know, for instance, that those figures are not the result of anything like Obamacare’s driving full-time jobs to extinction and other regulatory burdens dissuading small businesses from hiring. A little critical thinking will instantly guide you well away from such absurdities.

I have this to say about the above—and only to the IC audience. (The last time I expressed reservations to Tenured Professor Two, in a private email, about some of her transformative ideas, she called me stupid [“you’re not stupid, but…”] and vaguely threatened me [“If you really want me to respond, I will”]). Undergrads actually do tend to choose an English major because they love literature—the fools! We certainly do nothing to encourage that love. They want to figure out what life is about. They want to profit from the condensation of life experiences into a significant pattern, a sequence, that an ingenious story-teller has wrought. We’re all born and we all die: they want to see what imaginative observers of the past have made of the time in between. What are our obligations as human beings? What makes us happy? What kinds of apparent happiness lead to misery? How much of all this is affected by a given author’s cultural circumstances, and how much seems to withstand the test of time as a correct assessment of basic human nature?

What we English professors show them (or attempt to inculcate into them in our loyal service of the progressive state’s makeover) is that no human nature exists. Animal nature is another matter: we are all animals. Culture has clothed us in presumptuous manners and customs—but clothes may be removed. All stories are either propaganda intended to sell the masses on the ruling elite’s self-serving view of stability, or else they are underground transmissions of the oppressed and rebellious who dream of inverting the power pyramid.

Our students want to seek God. We want to reprogram them to see that they serve hidden masters unless they serve themselves. The progressive utopia gives everyone a chance to maximize his or her service of selfish desires and pleasures—though, contradictorily, it thickly stirs in rhetoric about service to the state; for fairness demands that all have an equal chance to release the inner animal, and released animals turn out not to have much investment in fairness. The real goal, as you will have suspected, is to be one of the reprogrammers, the architects. That’s where all the fun is: arranging other people’s lives for them.

Without the duplicity in the “no God exists… so I’ll take his place for you” brand of liberation, the academy’s cynical approach to literary art would remind me of Ayn Rand, frankly. Her novels project an honest expression of the ideology of godless selfishness (or self-idolatry). How such writing can be so dear to the Christian Right rather mystifies me. I’m afraid our side (for I am of that camp) doesn’t read enough good literature. We swallow a text that superficially seems to endorse one or two of our social or economic positions. Reading literature supplies the opportunity to fine-tune such identifications—to see how certain blueprints of the good life fall apart by observing where the author must distort human nature in order to score a victory for his or her heroes. Great authors don’t do much warping: they don’t try to pass off flawed counterfeits of the human psyche. Ayn Rand is not among these (and neither, from the perspective of character, is Gustave Flaubert in my opinion).

So why do young people study English? Because they want to find God, whether they know it or not. (Maybe they want to find out if there can really be no God.) Why should we English teachers redefine our terms before the public? To emphasize that we teach young people how to manipulate words sophistically so as to lure any given audience to any specified end—a highly marketable skill, to be sure! And yes, we already do that. We take texts like Robinson Crusoe and bury their spiritual journey under a shallow demonstration of their sympathy with the slave trade. We take Marie de France’s medieval poem Eliduc and show that the hero is a vile philanderer rather than that his wife is intended allegorically to represent Christian sacrifice. We make black white and up down. We tear everything apart and reconstruct it in a manner that maximally serves our selfish advantage, both as postmodern narcissists who imagine themselves victims of every narrative ever told and as professional hacks who urgently need something published if they are to secure a pay raise.

Thank God, I’m near retirement! But after that meeting, I wonder what the odds are of there being a constituency somewhere—perhaps a group of homeschoolers—for a new private school? We would teach Latin and Greek as a basis for the modern languages and the literature of those classical cultures as the basis of the Western worldview. We would study history, not in ideological presumption, but from multiple points of view in an effort to draw closer to a truthful proposition. We would learn to grow some of the food for our school lunch, and we would combine wrap-around greenhouses with classroom space in such a way as to heat the latter during winter and to circulate breezes through it during warmer months. We would design more secure and environmentally smarter buildings. We would study the stars. We would handwrite on paper and save private computers and phones for off-campus play-time. And we would learn why the existence of a supreme being cannot be arbitrated by science, and why empirical reasoning cannot reveal ultimate truth.

If I don’t build that school, somebody will some day. I know this much for sure: the Ivory Tower is coming down in a ruinous heap, and it’s the “humanities” people who have flown a 747 into it.

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