“In response, a number of defenses have been mounted, none of them, so far, terribly persuasive even to one rooting for them to persuade. As the bromides roll by and the platitudes chase each other round the page, those in favor of ever more and better English majors feel a bit the way we Jets fans feel, every fall, when our offense trots out on the field: I’m cheering as loud as I can, but let’s be honest—this is not working well.
“The defenses and apologias come in two kinds: one insisting that English majors make better people, the other that English majors (or at least humanities majors) make for better societies; that, as Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, just put it in The New Republic, “ there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines—to the study of history, literature, art, theater, music, and languages.” Paxson’s piece is essentially the kind of Letter To A Crazy Republican Congressman that university presidents get to write. We need the humanities, she explains patiently, because they may end up giving us other stuff we actually like: “We do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.”
“Well, a humanities major may make an obvious contribution to everyone’s welfare. But the truth is that for every broadly humane, technological-minded guy who contributed one new gadget to our prosperity there are six narrow, on-the-spectrum techno-obsessives who contributed twenty. Even Paxson’s insistence that, after 9/11, it was valuable to have experts on Islam around is sadly dubious; it was Bernard Lewis, a leading scholar on the subject, who consulted closely with Dick Cheney before the Iraq War, with the results we know. Continue reading “Who wants English, anyway?”