We’ve been hearing these stories for years. Humanities majors are declining. Tenure-track jobs are dwindling. No one cares about books by English professors anymore, at least not this year. The Chronicle has run many articles on this, and Thursday’s New York Times offers a reprise.
Majors are looking elsewhere. A weak economy and increasingly expensive tuition have caused students—sometimes at the goading of their parents, who are paying the bills—to get practical and turn to the hard sciences, especially computer science, and to mathematics. These kinds of “death of literature” stories have been piling up for about a generation. The alarms been issued for so long that I actually wrote my graduate-school personal statement on the matter.
How many people have left the major? What kinds of numbers are we looking at? I’m not exactly sure. Someone could probably crunch the numbers on this, but don’t look at me. I’m an English professor, and I suck at math. (Actually, even card-carrying humanists like Michael Bérubé have crunched the numbers, and he gives them a different spin than conventional wisdom dictates.)
Maybe I’ve just been cursed with a good memory, but my high-school transcript was wildly uneven because I loved my classes in the humanities and the arts, and math and science were just torture. I just didn’t get them. And I am still happy to pay a trained professional to do my taxes. I’m good at tips, though. I have my priorities.
Part of my humanistic resistance to the hard sciences was that I had much better teachers in English and history than I had for algebra and biology. But part of it was just how my brain worked. Sure, I could have philosophical conversations on the implications of, say, Darwin or the Big Bang, but like most people, I still leaned in the direction of what I was good at. And I know plenty of other humanities scholars who, like me, have nightmares that they just remembered that they were enrolled in a math class and it was too late to study for the test. I have variations on that dream pretty regularly. Sometimes, I’m teaching the class, which is even worse.
Anyway, arts and humanities people, this is no time to capitulate. The numbers have the numbers, but we have the souls. Interdisciplinary studies? My first book was on music and literature, so it worked for me. But cramming cognitive science down the throats of undergraduates who just wanted to read Victorian novels? You had me at Middlemarch!
It’s also no time to water down what we do to increase our numbers. Many worthy causes require a struggle. I can’t believe that there are fewer students like me—that suddenly there is a surge on the math and science team.
There is a time and place for everything, it is said—and it is called college. I went to Sarah Lawrence, where there is no math or science requirement, and when I got there, I suddenly became very, very disciplined. I never missed a class (even when I was sick); I was never late on a deadline. I was that rare phenomenon, that unicorn, of an undergrad without excuses. I went from being a high-school talented screw-up to a serious college scholar, and if math requirements had continued to haunt me through college, I might not have done as well there, and maybe not even as well in life.
Let those who wish tackle interdisciplinary studies. Good for them. And of course we need as many math and science scholars as we can produce. There is the global marketplace, and the discoveries of things we and future generations will need. Plus, someone needs to fix my computer, or invent a better one. There are many maladies I would like to see cured, many people whom I would love to see examine climate change in a meaningful way. And I would like to see the best computer geniuses (I mean real ones, not Mac ones) fix the damned healthcare.gov debacle as soon as possible.
All of those people deserve to be well paid and win laurels. But I am also glad that there is still space for people who are literary and live for the arts. That relief that I had when I got to Sarah Lawrence—it was amazing, as if I had left a world of chaos and instability and entered a world of achievement. People should have the chance to be good at what they do.
For all I know, there are math and science people having literature nightmares. There should be enough people to explain how things work, and others, like us, who explain what they mean. Sometimes, being really good at something is the flip side to being really bad at something. I would hope that a person like me might not have been so intellectually lopsided if I’d had better teachers, but I wouldn’t be able to prove it. I certainly wouldn’t give you the numbers on it. I like evidence, and I prefer the empirical to things that cannot be proved. But then, I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose. Emily Dickinson said that. I guess she wouldn’t have written a best-selling book this year.
I teach T.S. Eliot asking “Do I dare disturb the universe” without having taken a class in astronomy. Anyone who has the intellectual passion to pursue such things—humanities scholars who dare to understand more literally what Eliot pointed to—deserves accolades. But some of us got where we are because we knew how we could best contribute not just to any discourse but to the world.
That’s not often said, but I bet many people think it. We can’t be good at everything, and recognizing that could make us work even harder at the things that we can do well. Sarah Lawrence changed my life. Taking responsibility for things I was good at just made me want to learn more, write better, continue searching. When I chose literature and philosophy, I took the responsibility of committing to my strengths. I’m still committing. I wouldn’t have traded my asymmetrical liberal-arts education for anything.
David Yaffe is a professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton University Press, 2005) and of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown (Yale University Press, 2011).