“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.
Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read “than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)
“So why have English majors? Well, because many people like books. Most of those like to talk about them after they’ve read them, or while they’re in the middle. Some people like to talk about them so much that they want to spend their lives talking about them to other people who like to listen. Some of us do this all summer on the beach, and others all winter in a classroom. One might call this a natural or inevitable consequence of literacy. And it’s this living, irresistible, permanent interest in reading that supports English departments, and makes sense of English majors.”
“Bill James dealt with this point wonderfully once, in talking about whether baseball is, as so many people within it insist, really a business, and not a sport at all. Well, James pointed out, if the sporting interest in baseball died, baseball would die; but if the business of baseball died—which, given all those empty ringside seats at Yankee Stadium, doesn’t seem impossible—but the sporting interest persisted, baseball would be altered, but it wouldn’t die. It would just reconstitute itself in a different way.
“And so with English departments: if we closed down every English department in the country, loud, good, expert, or at least hyper-enthusiastic readers would still emerge. One sees this happening already, in the steady pulse of reading groups and books clubs which form, in effect, a kind of archipelago of amateur English departments. The woman with the notebook and the detailed parsing of how each love affair echoes each other in “Swann’s Way” is already an English professor manqué. (Or, rather, a comp-lit professor.)
“If we abolished English majors tomorrow, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler would not suddenly be freed to use their smarts to start making quantum proton-nuclear reactor cargo transporters, or whatever; they would all migrate someplace where they could still talk Shakespeare and Proust and the rest. Indeed, before there were English professors, there were… English professors. Dr. Johnson was the greatest English professor who ever lived—the great cham of literature, to whom all turned, Harold Bloom plus-plus—and he never had a post, let alone tenure, and his “doctorate” was one of those honorary jobs they give you, after a lifetime of literary labor, for Fine Effort. The best reading and talking about books was, in the past, often done by people who had to make their living doing something else narrowly related: Hazlitt by writing miscellaneous journalism, Sydney Smith by pretending to be a clergyman.”