What’s So Important About English Classes Anyway?

For most of the 1990s, I taught at a large state research university in the South. The state enforced a non-competition policy regarding its two premier public universities: One focused its attention and resources and offered Ph.D. programs in the arts, humanities, and social sciences; the other campus—mine—was the magnet school for math, science, and engineering.

I hadn’t been at that big state school for very long when I began to understand just how little regard the institution had for the kind of work that I do as an English professor. At the first coffee break during new-faculty orientation, I met an assistant professor in chemistry who explained that he was only teaching one course in the fall—I was teaching three—because he “had to do research.” I was, at the time, revising what would later be published as my first book. It sure seemed like research to me. At another social event a year or two later, I was introduced to someone who worked in the university’s research office. She asked my name and seemed bemused that she didn’t recognize it. Then she asked what department I taught in; when I answered “English,” her face lit up, and she said—without a trace of irony, or embarrassment—“Oh, that’s why. Y’all don’t do research.”

I’ve got dozens of stories like that—how much time have you got? My point is only that I’ve taught at otherwise very fine institutions where the humanities are barely tolerated, so coming to Pomona College, 18 years after finishing my Ph.D., was a real shock to my system. A wonderful one.

So from one perspective—and on balance, I think it’s the most important one, albeit one that I and others too quickly lose sight of—the humanities are doing just fine here at Pomona College. The study of English, to pick my home discipline, has a long and illustrious tradition at the college, boasts distinguished alumni, has nationally and internationally recognized scholars and writers among the faculty, and continues to attract some of the brightest and highest-achieving students at the college, both as students and as majors.

As I said in my introduction to the Andrew Delbanco lecture last week, I believe that centrality of the humanities to the liberal arts mission of Pomona College is almost axiomatic. The danger of this situation, on the other hand, is that we start to take the humanities disciplines for granted. The study of philosophy is an intellectual pursuit with an almost 5,000 year history: Common sense suggests that it has some staying power. (Delbanco’s English department office at Columbia University is in Philosophy Hall.) Meanwhile, emergent fields of knowledge such as environmental analysis, neuroscience, and media studies are in obvious need of institutional support if they are to take their rightful places as full participants in the college curriculum.

I said that philosophy has been around for five millennia and isn’t in danger of dying anytime soon; the lunchtime discussion I attended the day after Delbanco’s talk, attended by perhaps 20 philosophy students and faculty, certainly painted a picture of a lively and engaged intellectual community. But look at philosophy’s kissing cousin, classics. We’re fortunate, here at Pomona, to boast a vibrant classics department, populated with imaginative junior and accomplished senior faculty across the 5Cs, and revitalized recently by the intercollegiate Late Antique and Medieval Studies major. Rumors about the Death of Classics, however, date back to at least the 1980s; as recently as 2010, SUNY Albany made the very worst kind of headlines by closing its program in classics, along with those in theater, French, Italian, and Russian.

The history of the American college demonstrates quite clearly that in times of economic uncertainty (read: today), enrollments in the arts and humanities suffer, as students gravitate toward majors believed to be better insurance in a difficult job market. The liberal arts college, on the other hand, finds its identity in providing a space for four years of study that is “liberal” in the radical sense of the word—free, free from career pressures, free from serving as the means to an end. As Cardinal Newman wrote a century-and-a-half ago in The Idea of a University, liberal learning constitutes “a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does.” In a climate like ours today, such an education might seem like a luxury; but as Delbanco deftly disentangled the terms the other night, it’s not a luxury (Latin luxuria, < luxus, “abundance, sumptuous enjoyment”), but a privilege—and one that has been the audacious dream of the American republic to secure for every interested citizen.

Perhaps it’s time, then, for the college to reaffirm its commitment not narrowly to the humanities, but to the broader goal of a liberal education. If the humanities have been to some degree singled out for special attention this year, maybe that’s because it’s once again our turn. Last year’s graduating class, I’m told, included one student who finished with 28 courses in the same curricular division. A course of study like that might be appropriate in a narrowly specialist institution, but not at a liberal arts college; sitting by while that happens, we risk becoming a liberal arts college in name only. Discussions are taking place across the campus and across the academic year to put these issues squarely in front of us. I hope you’ll seek out various ways—through the public lecture series, “The Heart of the Liberal Arts”; through lunchtime student conversations, like those being sponsored by the Department of Philosophy; through events put together by the Pomona Student Union; through late-night “bullshit” sessions in the residence halls, whose enduring value belies that flippant description—to join the conversation.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply