Scrivener, Displeased

Brother Joel and assorted friends have been sharing Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “Decline and Fall of the English Major,” which appeared in the New York Times on June 22.  Joel, on FB, gave a nice shout-out to me and our father (currently wonynge in the Next Sphere), thought it would strike a chord, etc.  Klinkenborg, an award-winning writer, has produced a piece of a familiar kind: he decries the level of student writing (“each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write—and each semester I discover, again, that they don’t”).  He does this with a certain leaden preciousness (“they can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon”), and he cites (wait for it) “a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” the upshot of which is that “the teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times.”  Being an English Major and studying The Humanities are actually two different things, but he doesn’t bother making the distinction.  English majors are down, numerically, at the places he’s taught: “Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.”  Whoa!  Really?  Those are some elite institutions!  Klinkenborg is sounding an important alarum!

K.  So:

Nothing new here.  Yeah, the humanities are embattled, and moron conservative commentators glory in riling angry parents about elite leftist institutions where they will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their children to learn Deconstruction, Lesbianism, Vegetarian Cooking, and Disrespect For Parents.  Terrifying the credulous (=scaring the horses) is always good business, particularly if one can convince low-information types that they’re being given good information.  How is it that woolly free association, finger-wagging, and hand-wringing are supposed to help his or any case in the absence of other considerations?  Surely there are one or two unaddressed issues here?

An ivy-league education at the institutions he cites, living expenses included, costs what, half a million dollars?  At the very least, it might be worth asking about the other 99% of schools—are their English and humanities majors up, down, or holding steady?  So, half a million dollars of student debt to, you should excuse me, think deep thoughts?  Beggin’ yer leave, guv’: I’m a Musicology professor and the husband of another, the son of an English professor and a teacher, and the brother of a journalist (who, incidentally, got into print at age 16 or 17, well before the rest of us) and no…a diamond-studded English degree is NOT worth all that student debt.  If we’d prefer to leave debt out of the discussion, to which caste are we speaking?  Should we all really be that deeply concerned that English majors are down at Sarah Lawrence?  I don’t often use the word “elitist” in a negative way, but now seems an appropriate time.  Given the violent realignments in the workforce and spasmodic upheavals in the American economy, is a paean to the life-of-leisure-for-the-privileged model really the best there is to offer the NYT readership?  Yes, ideally an English major learns much of the canon (Klinkenborg’s glossing over that debate was … convenient), clear writing, clear, critical thought, etc., skills for which (we all earnestly agree) any employer ought to be grateful.  However: study history, and you ought to get precisely those skills, plus a wider cultural perspective that will set you up for a variety of endeavors including law, politics, various kinds of public and private research, etc.  Major in music and you’ll get those same skills, plus the knowledge of a different artistic canon (same arguments applying, of course), plus—hopefully—proto-professional skill on an instrument, and such widely acknowledged qualities as the ability to be self-motivated and work alone, the ability to work as a team, an embrace of deferred gratification, multivalent thinking and problem-solving, etc.  Study a language and you’ll get those same skills, plus the literature, plus also travel opportunities, a truly multicultural perspective, and skill sets that can lead in a variety of different directions: travel, diplomacy, translation, and many others.  Are we really worrying about The English Major At Six Elite Institutions to this extent?  I wonder about enrollments and major declarations at All Of The Schools, and in All Of The Humanities.

My point here is not to promote my discipline and a few others at the expense of English.  I believe people should study English for the same reasons they study Music, History, Languages, or anything else: because they have to.  The jurist Benjamin Cardozo was said to have “an ecstatic consecration unto the law” and that’s good enough for me.  Not only do canons change over time, though, so do foci of study, and that’s also a good thing.  I suspect, for example that there are far fewer people studying Classics than there were a century ago.  Is that a bad thing?  I don’t think so; presumably, the people who Mothra, Rodan, Gamara, and Godzilla working in concert couldn’t prevent from studying Classics still find a way to study Classics.  I don’t see anything wrong with that model.

Personal note: of the thirteen degrees earned by the family members mentioned above, I believe that only two were in English—my Dad’s masters and doctoral degrees.  Even he majored in something else as an undergrad.  Maybe we’re all awful writers and marshmallow-headed thinkers, but we all (except my Mom) publish(ed) regularly, and no I don’t mean blogs and letters to the editor.  So, my considered opinion on Mr. Klinkenborg’s concerns?

Whatever.  “Study what you want.”*

*Word-for-word advice from Mom, in the course of a family discussion about whether I should stick with History or major in Music.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Scrivener, Displeased

  1. Bob says:

    Good to see you back, Phil and Jon!

    Turns out that “the decline of humanities majors” trope is a little more nuanced; simply because of what data was available, it appears that what has previously been interpreted as the norm was likely a bubble. See, from yesterday’s Chronicle: “The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers.”
    Also of interest:, a Georgetown Public Policy Institute report on earnings in relation to degree majors (liberal arts: “middle of the pack.”)
    Cheers, Bob

  2. jonathanbellman says:

    Thanks, Bob. Also worth noting is the idiotic drumbeat of “The Ten Best Majors” that show up on one’s homepage, be it or yahoo or whatever—predictably, the strong recommendations are for paralegals and med-techs and so on. But *search the authors*!! One was a freelancing scriptwriter from UCLA, others struggling journalists. People who have no idea, in other words, and are hired guns writing whatever crap they’re told to write. That, then, becomes part of the culture, the zeitgeist, the drumbeat everyone is constantly bombarded by.

    I’m more than willing to rant about the responsibilities of people who *do* sign up for humanities majors—I was not impressed by a lot of what I saw as an undergrad. But that’s yet another subject.

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