Whence, and where, and why the English major? The subject is in every mouth—or, at least, is getting kicked around agitatedly in columns and reviews and Op-Ed pieces. The English major is vanishing from our colleges as the Latin prerequisite vanished before it, we’re told, a dying choice bound to a dead subject. The estimable Verlyn Klinkenborg reports in the Times that “At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number,” and from other, similar schools, other, similar numbers.
In response, a number of defenses have been mounted, none of them, so far, terribly persuasive even to one rooting for them to persuade. As the bromides roll by and the platitudes chase each other round the page, those in favor of ever more and better English majors feel a bit the way we Jets fans feel, every fall, when our offense trots out on the field: I’m cheering as loud as I can, but let’s be honest—this is not working well.
The defenses and apologias come in two kinds: one insisting that English majors make better people, the other that English majors (or at least humanities majors) make for better societies; that, as Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, just put it in The New Republic, “ there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines—to the study of history, literature, art, theater, music, and languages.”
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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.
Bill James dealt with this point wonderfully once, in talking about whether baseball is, as so many people within it insist, really a business, and not a sport at all. Well, James pointed out, if the sporting interest in baseball died, baseball would die; but if the business of baseball died—which, given all those empty ringside seats at Yankee Stadium, doesn’t seem impossible—but the sporting interest persisted, baseball would be altered, but it wouldn’t die. It would just reconstitute itself in a different way.
And so with English departments: if we closed down every English department in the country, loud, good, expert, or at least hyper-enthusiastic readers would still emerge. One sees this happening already, in the steady pulse of reading groups and books clubs which form, in effect, a kind of archipelago of amateur English departments.
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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.
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But the 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.