The Humanities In The Anthropocene

Posted: March 20, 2019 in Uncategorized

“We read Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.,’ Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality,’ and and Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.’ But this might be the last year I teach any of those texts. That course belongs to a major that has been canceled, and there is no need for 19th-century British poetry in our preprofessional university. I can sneak only so much into freshman writing, where I spend most of my time talking about the importance of a strong thesis.

Charles Smithson, a character in John Fowles’s 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is a wealthy, idle gentleman who faces the challenge of realizing that he, as a type, is becoming extinct. The novel is set in 1867, and Charles, a devotee of Darwin, considers the recently published On the Origin of Species to be his bible. His social class will cease to exist within a generation, and Charles has both the wisdom to see that he must adapt and the self-awareness to know that he is incapable of it. He is being swept away by evolutionary change but is helpless to change his fate.

I am a college English instructor. This is a bad time for my species — and a bad time for the study of English. In academe, we are witnessing an extinction of fields of study once thought essential. I teach at a private university that has just canceled majors in English, religious studies, philosophy, and music. The English major is becoming the useless gentleman, the Charles Smithson, of the modern university.

  1. Kenzie Crowley says:

    Although I am not a humanities major, I feel like the humanities are valued less than they should be. Even in my Foundations of Business Thought classes, there a several kids majoring in instrumental performance taking business classes for fun. We studied the importance of humanities majors in business. They bring different perspectives and skills to the table that benefit all of the people working for a primarily business focused company. It makes me sad to think that the humanities, and especially english majors are becoming few and farther between. Without the humanities, we would all be robots programmed to do identical tasks without empathy or any sort of humanity. As Eliot wrote, the humanities teach us important critical thinking skills and can bring people together and help them succeed as a team. There is something more uniting about listening to a song or reading a piece of literature and discussing than writing a code together and watching it perform a certain action.

  2. This is disheartening, but after reading the article I noticed that it’s students like me that are causing humanities to be pushed to extinction.

    I wanted to major in art history and considered majoring in English as well, but I ultimately ended up in STEM. Handler touches on the final factor in my decision: what does one do with a degree in english or art history? An english major seems to have no other option than to become a teacher- that’s very discouraging for someone like me who adores literature but has no interest in teaching. A similar statement could be said in regards to art history and other humanities majors. The career choices for hummanities majors are unknown to students or not clearly defined which makes it a risky choice.

    If humanities could show more career paths or offer reassurance to students, I think they would be stiffer competition for STEM. Granted, coddling isn’t good for those becoming independent, but some support would be helpful.

    I think the extinction of humanities majors could be curbed if students were shown more career options besides the stereotypical teaching position. It would serve as an adaptation that would make the humanities majors more fit to compete with STEM overall.

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