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A Thing of Beauty is a Joy For Ever

Thoughts on the Crisis in the Humanities

Cassandra Nelson

“The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.”
                                                                     – Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)

For a good part of last year I felt as though I couldn’t open a newspaper or surf the Internet without encountering a debate about the worth of a liberal arts education in twenty-first-century America, or a dirge for its welcome or regrettable death, depending on the writer. Not having all the world and time, and with dissertation deadlines to boot, I stopped paying close attention to this “crisis” (the favored term) until the crisis showed up on my doorstep, twice.

First, an article on the humanities in Harvard Magazine garnered two letters to the editor. Both were from ill wishers, one of whom turned out to be, after a few minutes of Googling, a professor emeritus of English literature; both more or less said the humanities had got their just desserts, for the rampant liberalism and general out-of-touchness of its practitioners. I was so baffled by the possible motives of the retired professor, whose job many people in my position, as a recent PhD in English, would willingly sacrifice relationships, any choice in where they live, and future children to have, that my mind drew a blank on how to respond.

Not a week later an editorial appeared in the Harvard Crimson cheering the forces of intellectual Darwinism and the invisible hand. If demand for the humanities has dropped, it suggested, the only thing to do is decrease the supply; prosperity and progress demand it.

A humanities PhD on the job market must grow a pretty thick skin, but I found myself shaken. If the liberal arts are not safe from attack at Harvard, then where? How much longer before this sort of thing happens at Oberlin or Swarthmore?

The student editorial was titled “Let Them Eat Code.” A clever headline, yes, but also an argument in miniature for the continuing relevance of the humanities in its lack of basic historical awareness. Marie Antoinette is not exactly an authority on which way the tides are turning. The line famously attributed to her is meant to show how far removed from the concerns of everyday people the French monarchy had become on the eve of the Revolution. On hearing that peasants were complaining of a lack of affordable bread, she suggested they eat brioche, as though people who couldn’t pay for flour and water would shell out for eggs and butter instead.

So perhaps there’s something to be said for staying in touch with the past, as well as the present.

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Critics of the humanities do have a point though, insofar as we could do a better job of PR. Students are understandably worried about finding jobs after they graduate, and we, in English departments anyway, sometimes neglect to talk about the concrete, marketable skills that a liberal arts education can provide—as well as the intangible, non-quantifiable ones.

While auditing a course on public speaking two years ago, I asked a room full of graduate students in professional schools—law, business, government—to imagine they had a memo in one hand and in the other, a Shakespeare play. Given five minutes to read a page of either document and tell someone what it’s about, which would they choose? No one picked the Shakespeare play because, frankly, a page of Troilus and Cressida is probably going to take more time and effort to comprehend than a page from the OECD’s 2011 Education at a Glance report, although both are examples of worthwhile reading material. In sports, practice is harder than the game; Shakespeare, if you see where I’m going with this, is good practice for other things—for anything, really, in which strong reading, writing, and critical thinking skills are assets. Examples include careers in law, communications, government, nonprofits, and business; also, life.

Prospective English majors in particular, and their future employers, will be happy to know that fiction is markedly better than nonfiction at improving reading proficiency (see that OECD report for details; the 2012 and 2013 reports, depressingly, do not contain any indicators relating to reading). Because one hallmark of literature is its indeterminacy—that is, its ability to support multiple interpretations—students are forced to figure out which interpretation they find most persuasive.

An English professor, in turn, will force them to mold these interpretations into a coherent essay—not just to construct a cogent argument, but to ensure that it survives the transition from brain to page intact, which is much, much harder than it sounds. Writing about imaginary people and imaginary events (i.e., fiction) is especially difficult to do well, because the ground is forever shifting beneath your feet. A student who has learned to explicate a poem or track a theme through a 500-page novel will find a cover letter, work email, memo, or report to be a pleasant change of pace: how wonderfully solid and easy to analyze are real people and real events by comparison.

These are very basic skills, reading and writing, maybe so basic that we simply forget to talk about them. But they are also indispensible, and increasingly rare. Part of the problem with the humanities’ “brand” is that it’s diffuse and hard to pin down; rightly so, nothing is monolithic and especially not humanistic inquiry. But reading and writing skills are, to borrow a term from the business world, two of our core competencies. And because words are the building blocks of thought as well as written and oral communication, students who are fluent readers and writers also tend to be nuanced, sound decision makers. Job creators, please take note.

Way at the other end of the marketing spectrum, I wonder if the humanities might be less likely to play catch-up with other departments if we admit that, while digital humanities are promising and quite cool, our greatest strengths have as much to do with endurance as with innovation. Several years ago at a dinner party, a friend proudly stated that the body of knowledge in his field, electrical engineering, doubles every two years. The brilliance of my own, I countered, is that nothing has changed for almost four millennia.

There was no English literature in 1800 BCE, of course—no English, for that matter, nor England—but that’s when the earliest extant fragments of the Epic of Gilgamesh were scratched onto cuneiform tablets. It’s a notable text for a number of reasons, but mostly because it came first: eight centuries before the Hebrew Bible, fourteen centuries before Plato. It follows the exploits of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his beloved friend Enkidu, whose death sets Gilgamesh on an arduous quest to discover the secrets of life. Humans are mortal, is what he finds out, but stories endure.

In other words, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a perfect starting point for narrative. It has everything: love and death, adventure and peril, triumph and defeat, laughter and tears. But mostly those first two things, which are what nearly all fiction and drama that has followed in its wake—Romeo and Juliet, Huck and Jim, even Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot—can ultimately be boiled down to. Love and death, and how to make sense of, or at least cope with, them.

My point at the dinner party, then, was that although the makeup of a given society and its economy will change over time, and therefore the need for particular skill sets and modes of occupational preparation will change as well, the hours of the day not spent working are thankfully still spent being human, in essentially the same way people have been human for thousands of years. Perhaps you know someone who has absolutely no interest in loving or being loved, and zero anxiety about death or curiosity about what, if anything, comes after that. But I don’t believe I ever have met such a person, or even seen one on TV.

In the face of these abiding human needs, narrative is a powerful tool. By embodying ideas in the form of characters and events, novels and poems help us to remember (which is why Aesop’s image of a tortoise and a hare has endured for roughly 130 generations); by possessing a beginning, middle, and end, they teach us to discern continuity and causation from complicated events. Stories also shed light on the unknown. Part of the reason why fairy tales delight children, according to Maria Tatar, an expert on folklore and myth, is because “adults are always whispering among themselves about all kinds of things to do with the body, and books give them access to those secrets.”

If you replace “children” with “twenty-first-century Americans” and “adults” with “popular media channels,” you’ll find that vast swathes of the human experience are not talked about at this particular moment in space-time. Not about the body—very little is left to the imagination there—but other things. Unpleasant and complicated things, mostly.

Many narratives of failure and success that are in wide circulation in the United States today assign blame or praise to a specific individual, while giving short shrift to the complex morass of social, economic, educational, and health factors that put some people at an objective disadvantage and give others a head start. And in a sad realization of the axiom that opens Anna Karenina, failure and unhappiness are depicted in a thousand vastly different forms, while success is almost always framed in narrowly materialistic terms.

The humanities are uniquely positioned to help pick up the slack, by teaching students to search out contextual information, untangle complexity, and assign meaning, and by presenting education as a way not only “to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes,” as W. E. B. Du Bois rather unappetizingly put it. There is even evidence that reading fiction can make people more empathetic. All of which is not to say that everyone needs to end up as a cross between Tony Tanner and Antoinette Tuff, but rather that questions about what it means to be a human being are as urgent as ever in an age of reality TV and mass shootings and direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. The liberal arts are a place in which to carry on important, nuanced conversations that aren’t being held elsewhere.

In our recruiting efforts, then, perhaps we in English departments can do more to talk up the transferable, marketable skills that come from reading and writing about literature—and also to explain that these skills are actually the icing on the cake, compared to the real rewards of spending your college years in the company of books that have endured for centuries, when much else has not. The opening to Keats’ “Endymion” is as true now as it was in 1818.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.

We might clarify, too, that although literary critics don’t agree on one specific interpretation of a novel or poem and then declare the case closed, it’s not because there is no meaning to be found in fiction. It’s because there’s lots of it. Which is a good thing, since man cannot live on bread—or brioche, or even code—alone.

CASSANDRA NELSON received her PhD in English from Harvard University in May 2014. She currently works at Oxford University Press and is revising her dissertation, about religion and technology in postwar American fiction, into a book. Her reviews and articles have appeared in Literary Imagination, Essays in Criticism, First Things, and Deep South Magazine, and her edition of Samuel Beckett’s More Pricks than Kicks was published by Faber and Faber in 2010.