Devaluing a humanities education ultimately devalues humanity itself
In my first weeks at Oxford University, I kept having this weird interaction when I told people that I studied English. They looked impressed. Sometimes they said “Wow.” “How about you?” I’d say, feeling awkward. “Oh, just engineering.” Coming from a socio-cultural environment where getting a degree in English tends to be considered, at best, a youthful self-indulgence, this was a very strange experience. Oxford, of course, is not representative of anything but Oxford — as an elite enclave with essentially a centuries-long monopoly on educating the great writers of English, it makes sense that those degrees have high status there.
But it got me thinking about why I was quite so surprised — why it was initially hard to even assimilate the information that these people saw the study of English as highly valuable and worthy of respect. After all, I certainly did — it’s why I’d bothered to work my way across the ocean for it.
I realized that, in spite of myself, I’d internalized the widespread attitude that a humanities degree is ultimately a frivolous and fruitless pursuit, socially speaking; that it will not bring any material success or measurable social status; that it is not at all “practical.”
There’s a very real extent to which that’s true. Recent efforts to sell English majors to the tech industry aside, we all know the too-true stereotype of an English graduate working at a bar.
This lack of opportunity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though; it’s not some kind of intrinsic or inevitable natural force. Economic opportunities are informed by our cultural attitudes. Our socio-economic systems reward the skills we collectively believe will make real contributions to our lives. Many of us seem to hold — consciously or not — an underlying belief that the skills gained through higher education in English are largely irrelevant to the advancement or maintenance of our society. What, after all, is so important about an essay on the use of metaphor in Coleridge or so urgent about another analysis of the allusions in The Waste Land? Are these not esoteric individual interests best pursued in leisure time?
And so science, engineering and medical research in Canada is funded at three times the rate of the humanities and so- cial sciences, and StatsCan data shows that undergraduate enrolment in humanities programs has dropped to half of what it was in the early 1990s, as a percentage of overall enrolment. Across the country there are fewer students enrolled in undergraduate humanities degrees now than there were in 1992-93, despite overall enrolment having increased by almost 700,000 students. Why should we care?
To answer that question, we need to ask another: what skills are taught by a good English education? What are undergraduates really learning when they work through how to analyze Shakespearean stanzas or critically discuss the themes and language of a novel?
It’s a lot more than knowledge of Hamlet. When done right, what students learn from a good English education is how to think and how to parse language. They learn how identify nuance and complexity and subtle messaging. They learn about the complicated interactions between words, personal experience and truth.
These are not fringe skills. These skills are fundamental, not only to the development of an individual human mind and to our capacity for forming deep and varied relationships with one another, but also to the continued functioning of a democratic society.
What, for example, are some of the most stubborn fault lines running beneath many of the current, deeply troubling, fractures in Western democratic societies? A distrust of rational discourse about differing points of view; confusing a strong emotional response with inalienable truth; an inability to parse good information and legitimate sources from the bad and disingenuous; a lack of empathy for the humanity of people different from oneself.
These are the skills that a good English education teaches: Critical thinking; analysis of language; insight into the minds of people from different places and times. Ultimately, it’s an understanding of the vastness and interconnectedness of the world — its subtleties, stories and strengths. The benefits of these skills for a society may not be as immediately evident or clearly measurable as those of technology or medicine, but they are just as vital to its health. In the age of Trump, we ignore them at our peril.