In Defense of the English Major

Picasso, "Two Girls Reading"

Picasso, “Two Girls Reading”

Adam Gopnik has written a spirited defense of the English major in a recent New Yorker article. Responding to expressions of panic about declining numbers of English majors (although it’s still a top major at my college), Gopnik tells us to relax. He says the English major isn’t going anywhere and will never cease to prove its worth.

He makes his argument, however, after first disputing two traditional defenses of literature: that it makes individuals better and that it makes societies better. Now, I believe it can do both, even though I will also concede that it doesn’t automatically do so. Therefore I don’t disagree with Gopnik when he makes the following point:

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.)

At least Gopnik allows for some social betterment coming out of literature. He could have been even more skeptical, as Terry Eagleton is in Literary Theory: An Introduction when he notes that there were concentration camp commandants reading Goethe during World War II to affirm their sense of Germany’s cultural superiority. Of course, Goethe would have been appalled at the Holocaust so they weren’t reading him well. But the point is that readers can read selectively through their own filters. I would argue that English upper class chauvinists and German fascists were not surrendering to literature but using it to confirm previously held positions.

In any event, Gopnik is looking for other ways to defend literature and the English major. He comes up with a fairly compelling one:

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.

And further on:

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.

Gopnik has one other objective, which is to defend literature as an academic discpline. He’s responding to those people who think that literature should be taken out of the classroom and put in the living room. There is value, Gopnik counters, to moving literature from just a pastime of elites to an activity open to anyone who goes to college:

To have turned the habits of reading and obsessing over books from a practice mostly for those rich enough to have the time to do it into one that welcomes, for a time anyway, anyone who can is momentous. English departments democratize the practice of reading. When they do, they make the books of the past available to all. It’s a simple but potent act.

Is it in fact the case that some English professors go down abstruse byways, writing articles that virtually no one outside the field can understand? Yes, this happens. But Gopnik has a response to this as well:

[T]he best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? “Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.” You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects. A good doctor said to me, not long ago, “You really sort of have to like assholes and ear wax to be a good general practitioner”; you have to really like, or not mind much, intricate and dull and occasionally even dumb arguments about books to study English.

As much as I enjoy Gopnik’s article, however, I don’t entirely agree with his grand finale. Here it is:

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

Yes literature helps us enjoy life more. Yes literature helps us endure it more. But why dismiss its potential to produce shrewder entrepreneurs and kinder C.E.O’s? I’m not saying that monetary considerations should serve as the final defense. Think of them as a fringe benefit.

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  • kristina

    I had mixed feelings about this article, particularly in his remarks about the endurability of professing English in spite of a lack of institutional support. Yes, if the English major were suddenly abolished, all the theorists and professors wouldn’t just stop talking and writing about authors, texts, reading, and interpretation. As more and more institutions cut their humanities majors and employ armies of adjuncts to teach the remaining courses, I can imagine Gopnik’s argument being used against those who support robust programs: “Oh, you want literature and philosophy and history classes? Form a club! Form a book group! Get a professor to sponsor you (without pay) and have fun!”

    Glad to see your thoughts on this today.

  • Robin Bates

    I’ll acknowledge that Gopnik doesn’t make the most robust argument that can be made for the existence of English departments, Kristina. But I appreciated his distinction in his article between a practice and a profession. Attending book clubs would be a practice, a kind of side hobby. Whereas English Departments, Gopnik says, are “[t]he best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have [sic] a place to do it.”

    To use an example that some will relate to, there are many people who talk about having spiritual feelings. But if you don’t have a church or other religious organization that bolsters your spiritual exploration, it can become an off-again, on-again practice. In times of crisis (a family member’s death, 9-11), people are very glad that those organizations exist, assuring them that someone has thought long and deep about these things.

    I have my own questions about what some in my profession do. But if scholars didn’t have very exacting standards (which they defend ferociously) about correct texts or accurate literary biographies or rigorously argued analysis–if there weren’t peer referees for books and journal articles, if there weren’t exacting dissertation committees and college teachers who held students to high disciplinary standards–then it would all become a dilletantish mush. I in fact run a book club (without pay) but I am aware that the discipline I have been trained in gives me a way of framing and seeing a deeper significance to the often penetrating insights that the members have.

    This has been true since at least Aristotle. Athenian theater goers didn’t have to have literary training to experience catharsis while watching Oedipus brought low. But the existence of a literary theory formulated by a trained (and paid) philosopher allowed them to find new meaning in their responses.

  • Toby

    I’m on your side, dad. It was the explicit purpose of literature for centuries to produce better citizens or demonstrate moral goodness. Here’s Spenser doing it with his usual light touch before the Faerie Queene “The generall end therefore of all the booke, is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” This is done in subtler terms now, but is continued nonetheless.

    I think it’s more than a little disingenuous to say that World War I proves that books don’t stop atrocity or have failed to produce a different kind of thinking subject. It’s as weak an argument as saying that things would have been even worse were it not for poetry. Instead, I think powerful literature has powerful effects that aren’t necessarily gentle and virtuous. The Bible comes to mind as one text that has resulted in unthinkable violence against any number of its principles.

    I think that literature allows people to engage with grand, abstract, sometimes terrifying imaginative possibilities and that such a mindset can sometimes lead to or be used to justify terrible positions, just as it can be used to celebrate and advance equality, civil liberty, or virtue. English, as a field, seems to me dedicated towards investigating the grand narratives that have always and continue to produce and represent profound social change. That doesn’t cease to exist without English majors, but I do think lack of critical thinking on the subject mystifies a powerful and always potentially dangerous field of influence.

  • Robin Bates

    How wise, Toby! I love the Spenser quotation, which I’m embarrassed to say that I missed but will now use regularly. The Bible is an excellent example of powerful stories that have been used in a wide variety of ways, from absolute evil to heroic and inspirational virtue.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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