26 February 2009

Superman Was An English Major

Patricia Cohen wrote in the New York Times yesterday that "in tough times, the humanities must justify their worth." She quotes Andrew Delbanco, the director of the Columbia University program in American Studies, who says that humanities professors are in a state of "panic that their field is becoming irrelevant."

Panic? As an English professor, I don't think so. Whenever I teach literature to non-majors, I make a case about the importance of the course, and I do that regardless of the value of the Dow that week.

I talk to my students about how reading old books can help us understand our own lives. I try to show them how reading about times and places far away and long ago can help give us perspective on our own time and place -- precisely because of the temporal and geographical distance that allows a more dispassionate perspective.

I also remind them that a lot of what they'll be doing when they go off and do desk jobs is writing email messages (and maybe even the occasional memo) in which they have to try to persuade people to see or do things their way. All the reading and writing they do in their college humanities courses will help them learn how to persuade their co-workers to collaborate and their bosses to give them promotions or raises.

Degrees in history and political science (a field of the humanities, despite the name) seem to be a common qualification for political office: President Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Bush (lest you accuse me of liberal bias), John F. Kennedy, and Joe Biden all majored in one or the other (or, in Biden's case, both).

Some famous English majors include the astronaut Sally Ride, New York state governor Mario Cuomo, Superman -- well, okay, the actor Christopher Reeves, as well as other acting greats like Paul Newman, Emma Thompson, Susan Sarandon, and Harrison Ford. Penn State's football coach Joe Paterno was an English major; so was Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel prize in medicine, as well as baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti.

History, English, anthropology, political science, and other fields in the humanities teach students to think and to write, to ask questions and to keep learning. The world has been in a state of constant change for the past century, and it doesn't look as though this is going to change in the coming generations.

We need leaders who can think, who can ask hard questions, and who can adapt to change. We also need a society composed of people who can do these things -- who can ask the hard questions of the elected officials and help move the nation and the world forward in peace and prosperity into the next generations.

And me? I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, and then moved on to graduate degrees in literature.

Education in a career-oriented field prepares students for a career. Education in the humanities prepares students to learn the fundamentals of a variety of different careers. It prepares them for life.