Educating Humans

True story: my college has a Majors Fair for prospective students, who can visit the campus, meet professors, and discuss their disciplines. I was at the History table one day when a young woman wandered over to look at the resources on our table. Before I could say hello, her father quietly steered her over to the next table–the Business major table. I could almost hear him thinking that there was no way he was going to pay tuition/room/board for his daughter to become a History major and end up with no job prospects. I thought about that story when reading Mark Edmundson’s recent Chronicle piece, “The Ideal English Major.” Edmundson is an English professor at the University of Virginia who makes the case that everyone should consider majoring in English for a pretty significant reason: “Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.”  Pretty strong words (to quote the immortal Conrad Dobler).

So how does majoring in English prepare one for being human? Edmundson sums it up as follows:

“Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.”

I certainly sympathize with Edmundson’s defense of a humanities major and appreciate his ability to make the case for his discipline. I agree that if you are to make that case, you have to move beyond the pragmatic language of career preparation and embrace the possibilities of personal formation. Edmundson is right to note that achieving the goal of “becoming a person” sets the table for other opportunities. In fact, I would make a similar case about why students should think about a History major.

But a few questions still remain. No doubt Edmundson would agree that there are many doorways to enriching our humanity, but then what makes English so unique in its encouragement of a “love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth,” among other things? What about the mass of human beings not majoring in English? How does the “English major in the ideal form” (as Edmundson acknowledges) translate to the actual realities of colleges and universities? No doubt Edmundson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia offer a quality English major, but not every English department has the same quality or ideal. The democratization of education has been a hugely positive development on many fronts, but with it has come mediocrity, fragmentation, politicization, and a lack of common ground about who we are and what we should read (see: debates, canon).  So walking into an adviser’s office at Random U. and declaring an English major doesn’t necessarily represent a fulfillment of the hopes that Edmundson articulates.

One striking feature of Edmundson’s piece is that it feels like a case to be made once the liberal arts have been hopelessly fragmented. Edmundson is responding to the diminishment of the English major in an academic world transformed by the forces of specialization, careerism, and technological idolatry. Maybe arguing for the value of a particular major is the best that can be hoped for in that context. But perhaps smaller institutions–given that they can’t match larger schools for resources that encourage those trends anyway–should consider bolder steps to reinvigorate a liberal arts curriculum that carries the great conversation of a community of writers/scholars across the disciplines in a more compelling way. Too many schools pay lip service to the transcendent value of liberal arts education while governing themselves according to market forces and living in reactive fear of the latest trends and ominous predictions of higher education’s inevitable future. So what if, rather than becoming poor imitators of their larger, more well-funded brethren, they really believed in what they proclaimed?

But now I could be accused of promoting another ideal without dealing with the “real” problem of higher education’s unsustainable business model and irrefutable trends in cost, enrollment, and technological transformation. Given the risks, maybe that dad at the Majors Fair had a point. Moreover, there are always going to be multiple modes of education accomplishing differing purposes, including vocational training. Not all need to look alike. But I’m convinced it’s still possible to conceive of a sustainable model that reinvigorates the liberal arts at a smaller institution. Better stop here, but in the future I want to explore the model of combining liberal arts (math and sciences included) with the cultivation of craft skills…

Photo: Aaron Josephson, “The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Charlottesville, Virginia, United States.” Attribution: Public Domain.

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