The Washington Post
Looking out at the world
Regarding the March 4 letter about Marymount University eliminating its English major, “Farewell to the English major”:
I have asked myself over the years just what children need to learn. Finally, I feel sure in saying children need to learn what the world is (actually, Hannah Arendt said it before me), which means sciences, math, technology, geography as well as what people have done over the centuries, i.e., the humanities: history, languages, literature, psychology and more. All children need to learn about both areas of life.
Instead, we have accepted the theory that education begins first by looking at the children. From John Dewey’s 1897 “My Pedagogic Creed”: “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting-point for all education.”
First problem: How can we expect all the teachers to be able to determine for each child just what his or her “instincts and powers” are?
The ultimate problem is that children become adults without having learned enough about what the world is.
Education — primary and secondary — has the privilege of showing the world to the children. As they acquire knowledge, they will acquire the tools they need to determine their own interests and powers. It is incredible to imagine that teachers can influence students in a positive way other than by showing them how to look at the wider world. Education is not looking in; it is looking out.
Susan B. Toth, Alexandria
We shall slowly come to rue the loss of the English major in higher education. Humans are language-based, and all endeavors are driven by language use. Sloppy speech and sloppy writing directly reflect a sloppy mind. One cannot successfully complete a major in English without acquiring discipline and logical thinking to analyze whatever topic is under study. The topic is less important than the required skill: It might be a Shakespeare sonnet, but a structured social-benefit proposal will do equally in real life. The primary skill acquired by English majors is critical thinking.
We might want to study whether English majors are successful across many fields, including law, medicine and the sciences. My own anecdotal experience led me to respect fellow scientists with English-major backgrounds.
English majors face shortsighted assumptions by employers. That is what needs correction, not the unworthiness of the major. Success in any field comes from the logical application of facts and technical skills. A major in English is one means to acquire initially the mental discipline to apply specific knowledge learned in any field.
The loss of the English major represents a blow to our cultural structure. English literature has provided ample warning — from “The Time Machine” to “Brave New World” to “1984” — that humanity is diminished when the balance of the arts and sciences is thrown askew. Let us take a broader and longer view of the value of the humanities, including English, to us as a nation, as a species.
George Perry Hoskin, Burtonsville