Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In defense of English as a major

All hail English lit, an antidote to "big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification"! In his essay "The Ideal English Major," Mark Edmundson goes to bat for downtrodden humanities students yearning to breathe free amidst the masses of business, economics, and science majors thronging modern college campuses.
An English major is much more than 32 or 36 credits including a course in Shakespeare, a course on writing before 1800, and a three-part survey of English and American lit. That's the outer form of the endeavor. It's what's inside that matters. It's the character-forming—or (dare I say?) soul-making—dimension of the pursuit that counts. And what is that precisely? Who is the English major in his ideal form? What does the English major have, what does he want, and what does he in the long run hope to become?
The English major is, first of all, a reader. She's got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?
English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.
Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. "Life piled on life / Were all too little," says Tennyson's "Ulysses," and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats's sweet phrase: "a joy forever."
Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. The full essay, which appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is adapted from his latest book, Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, to be published this month by Bloomsbury USA.
Now ponder this bit of scientific data as reported in The Daily Mail.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool found the prose of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and the like had a beneficial effect on the mind, providing a 'rocket-boost' to morale by catching the reader's attention and triggering moments of self-reflection.
Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read pieces of classical English literature both in their original form and in a more dumbed-down, modern translation.
And, according to the Sunday Telegraph, the experiment showed the more 'challenging' prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the pedestrian versions.
The academics were able to study the brain activity as readers responded to each word, and noticed how it 'lit up' as they encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.
I know my brain just lights up when I put aside the tasks of the day and finally get to put my nose in a work of literature! Books by and about Shakespeare; an Oxford edition of Wordsworth's poems; and masses of Jane Austen titles are just some of our current literature offerings.


  1. The whole concept of “English Majors” and “Literature” taught in the university is a joke at this point, not least because it forever falls back on Shakespeare, Joyce, Austen, and Wordsworth. These authors---all quite worthy of course---become mere hurdles on the way to a degree, or worse yet, on the way to being considered cultured. Besides, the average 21-year-old may understand and enjoy Austen or even Tolstoy, but he or she won’t really “get” these authors until much later in life. The curriculum simply isn’t geared toward the students; it often makes literary greats seem duller or more difficult than they really are. Regardless, there are many great and fascinating authors (many quite legendary in their own countries or milieus) who could be studied instead: Arthur Rimbaud, Witold Gombrowicz, Fernando Pessoa, Paul and Jane Bowles, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Cesar Vallejo, Flann O’Brien, Paul Eluard, Alfred Jarry, Karel Capek, Bruno Schulz, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Nescio, and Joseph Roth, to name only a handful.

  2. Excellent points (and reading list!)

  3. Mr. Breton has a good point. Few high-schoolers really understand Shakespeare; few of their teachers do! The most memorable day of my high-school English class came when a student who refused to accept the tacit deal that we were studying the Bard, asked what a particular line meant. The glazed look of fear on the teacher's face was memorable and dismaying. (He said there wasn't time).
    Prof. Edmundson is quite eloquent on the reasons people read. Reading could be considered a kind of Vulcan mind-meld, but a friendly one, done not to extract information but to bestow a gift. When St. Exupery wrote, in Wind, Sand and Stars, of crashing in the desert sands at night, I felt I crashed with him, and because he felt no fear, and described only the beauty of it, I knew no fear then, nor since, of the solitude and the vast night.

  4. As an English major myself, there's a great deal in here that I'd agree with. It's a shame, though, that he profiles econ majors. As if we're the only ones who read?! Rather silly, considering the fact that a library card and a reading list will give you twice the education a diploma will (if done properly).

    1. That's true, but sad, because it means that you never had the kind of enlightenment a good teacher could provide. Is there any other subject, engineering or chemistry, which a student might learn self-guided? Do we pay the universities tens of thousands of dollars for a reading list and a library?
      If all the teacher is doing is giving you a list to read, you probably should demand more from your classes (though how you would succeed I don't know).

  5. I agree with some of Andre Breton's points. I wasn't an English major in college, but I was still under Humanities, so I faced the same critiques discussed in the essay. I believe any humanities focus places an importance on getting the most out of reading. I chose my major even before getting to college, because in high school, I read books on the subject with all of my free time.

    I will say that the English course that left me with the most knowledge and understanding was not based on Shakespeare, Austen, or Tolstoy...but instead was titled "Reading Counterculture" and it was my first exposure to writers who created their own counter-canon throughout history. The cultural impact of the books was as important as the books themselves, and I learned more in that one course than all my other English courses combined. And we read many of the authors on Breton's reading list.

  6. Nice read! I like the suggestions.

  7. This really helps ! Helps to know there are others who value and know the pittance as much as I feel that English plays !