The Conscience of an English Major

The media is awash with studies weighing the importance of higher education. They invariably calculate this value in terms of future earning power: whether college is necessary to prosper; whether it will enable you to do better than your parents; does it have any inherent use or does it merely serve as a credential to reassure employers, and so on. These studies address how a college degree is monetized: its vocational value, in the modern sense of that term. We promise English majors that they will master a set of professional skills—like critical thinking, or how to use a symbolism decoder ring, construct and counter arguments, weigh evidence, and render shapely Ciceronian turns of tweet that employers will swoon over.

In other words, an English major is a prudent, even practical choice. It may look to the untutored eye as if English majors are only reading novels and poems and plays and short stories—let’s face it, studying make-believe and beauty—but what they are really doing is honing all those wily ninja skills which will enable them to thrive in the four or five careers they’ll have in the course of their working life in the gig economy. Described thus, choosing to be an English major is something a ninja would obviously do, if ninjas were obvious: the mark not only of a practical but a truly Machiavellian mind.

I feel there is something suspect about this line of argument. For one thing, I’ve never been sure how critical thinking differs from regular thinking. Isn’t that a tautology? Also, the salute to the English major’s prudence has, as Hamlet might say, an air of protesting too much, a whiff of something defensive or apologetic about it that gets my hackles up. Because I would hazard that bankability is not the reason most chose this field of knowledge, nor why we should celebrate that choice.

Now, I won’t say that money isn’t important or that knowing how to write literary criticism can’t make our students some. The major does give them skills, and they will become gainfully employed — though I would add that the most important tools for professional success are the will to hustle and to not be a jerk.

It is also true that literary study has long been asked to justify its existence in a way not demanded of other disciplines. I’ll bet nobody asks engineers what they plan to do with their major. They will engineer, of course. A literature major, on the other hand, has no verb. To “literature”? To “English”? To “American literature and culture”? It is difficult to measure the value of knowing that a classical oration has eight parts and that an ode is a poem of praise, or what the difference is between alliteration and assonance, or an anapest and a dactyl, blank verse and heroic couplets, free indirect discourse and irony, reliable and unreliable narrators, Derrida and Daniel Deronda. In fact, so difficult is it that we often refer literature’s uses to ulterior purposes: it will help our students get into law school; it will show med schools they are well-rounded and humane. (It will also, I promise, make them very good at the New York Times crossword puzzle; I find “ode” comes up a lot.)

If you’ve said such things to yourself or to others, you’re in good company. Explaining the use of stories is as old as stories. Plato thought they taught children how important it was “to honor the gods and their parents, and to love one another;” for the Roman poet Horace, literature was able to delight AND teach—a twofer. Sir Philip Sidney belonged to an age when the university was changing from a place that trained people for the religious life to a place to train civil servants who could counsel rulers through eloquent persuasion. Sidney defended literature by citing the very first poet ever, Orpheus, whose songs had the power to charm animals and even the very stones, so eloquent that they convinced the god of the underworld to return Orpheus’ dead wife to him. When that didn’t work out (no fault of the poetry), so powerful was Orpheus’ expression of despair that it led the Thracian women to tear him limb from limb. (Now that’s what I call literary criticism. But maybe better to stick with the law school reason). Some modern scholars argue that stories are an evolutionary strategy, a way of consolidating and preserving group identity. I’m sure you can add other names to the list of explainers. Finding words to name things is what literature itself does. Like all mysteries, that its rationale is not self-evident is why it keeps having to be searched out, and why it remains critical to keep thinking about it.

And yet. As King Lear says, “reason not the need.” King Lear, you may recall, is talking about why he should keep a retinue of one hundred knights when he is no longer, vocationally speaking, the king. His point is that seemingly excessive things like knights, just like his daughter’s gorgeous gown or a beggar’s prized mementoes, comprise the dignity that makes us a human being rather than just a being. So while one hundred knights might seem, as the graduation song goes, mere pomp and circumstance, they also signify that our life ought to consist in more than getting and spending (Wordsworth’s phrase); we are human beings, not human doings. One hundred knights, like “higher” education and maybe especially like a literature major, do have their uses—their vocational value—but they are also the mark of majesty which is itself, as strange as it sounds, the mark of the humane (or maybe it’s the other way around). Choosing to study literature is an ennobling act. Reason not the need.

Now, you might not like that particular word “noble,” either for its ideological associations or because it sounds grandiose and a bit embarrassing. The terms we often use to describe literary heroes and villains—noble and, well, villainous—descend from the French words for landowner and peasant, meaning that our ethical and aesthetic vocabularies derive from an economic one. There’s also the fact that noble acts tend to be tragically self-sacrificing ones, which we hope does not describe what lies in wait for all English majors. (Although if it does, I promise that literature will help.) So you might choose a different word. You might choose a different text. But I know that you know what I mean by that shock of recognition and elevation and discovery of a home truth that occurs when you really grapple with language—that feeling that the top of your head has come off or what the poet George Herbert calls the sense of “something understood.”

Perhaps, then, try an older meaning for our current word. “Vocation,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originally meant “the action on the part of God of calling a person to exercise some special function, especially of a spiritual nature.” This seems to me a pretty good description of what literature does: it calls out to us, and we respond. Vocation in this older sense is also a loaded term (aren’t they all?), and it could be argued that in describing the field in terms of the spirit that I am introducing religion into the mix, which will then lead us to wonder religion how defined and by whom and what privileges need checking. Even in a secular sense, “spirit” has its own cringe factor; it is difficult to imagine a student saying to a future employer “in college I studied the human spirit. Hire me.” The spirit is something we’re meant to attend to on our own time, or on weekends. It is also something that can be hard to find time to do.

But an English major does make the time and that phenomenon of call-and-response their study. They engage with the minds and voices of other beings: authors, characters, their classmates and professors. They give themselves over to deep absorption in books as well as in skeptical analysis of them. They explore the terms of communion and difference, consolation and celebration and ceremony—those above-and-beyond things that are spiritually necessary if biologically superfluous or even downright inconvenient.

In my Shakespeare class last fall, we spent a week on the play Coriolanus. (Coriolanus is less famous than King Lear, maybe known to most people only from Cole Porter’s scurrilous rhyme about where you should consider kicking someone who finds you heinous.) One day we got into a discussion of why the hero found it so difficult to participate in the ritual that lay between him and political success. If it was “merely” a ceremony, just words, why was he so opposed to it, preferring rather to be “a lonely dragon of the fen?” (What a splendid image that is.) I remember one student suggested the example of graduation as a means by which we might grasp Coriolanus’ plight. While at first we all felt a bit sheepish comparing a college student’s rite of passage to an aspect of Shakespearean tragedy, there was also something deeply thrilling, even ennobling, about probing the resonances and differences. We didn’t lay the subject to rest that day—words won’t do that—but I know we all got a little bit smarter and a good deal closer to “something understood,” which is that there is no such thing as “just” words. English majors remember those moments, and they make more of them.

When you are an English professor, you often get asked what your favorite book is—right after the person nervously jokes that they will have to watch their grammar in front of you. I hate this question (and I think people should watch their grammar even when they’re not talking to me). Only one book? Really? The answer changes, usually depending on the book I am reading that day, which makes me wonder if I will appear flighty when I know what I’m being asked for is something durable and monumental. Even if I could pick just one, the reason changes. When I was in college and read King Lear for the first time, I loved the good daughter Cordelia because she spoke truth to power; as my own parents have aged, the wicked sisters Goneril and Regan have seemed to make a few surprisingly good points (just a few). Someday I expect Lear’s will become the voice I hear most clearly. But what doesn’t change is the fact of the book. It is something to sail by, and to know and grow with—not a “dead thing” in Milton’s phrase, “but the precious lifeblood of a master spirit.” Which is why that question matters.

The real problem with all those transactional questions about what a university education will do “for” students or what students plan to do “with” it is that they obscure today’s most important question (and preposition), which is how what students learn will make itself felt in the world through them. As professors, we are no longer in the business of training clergymen, but English majors are among the world’s great consciences. Education serves as the lifeblood of a lifelong commitment to the hard, necessary—and yes, majestic—work of expression and empathy, clear voicing and compassionate hearing: those vital components of human dignity, active citizenship, and good tenancy of our precious planet.

Claire McEachern is an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose scholarship and teaching focus on the early modern period.

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