Readings for Writers: How to Avoid Grifters; Or, Why the Humanities Matter

From Writer Unboxed:

“Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” The line, written in 1764, belongs to Oliver Goldsmith, an English poet and novelist barely anyone reads anymore. His words could have served as an epigraph to Nathan Heller’s essay, “The End of the English Major,” which appeared in The New Yorker in February of this year. But these days, who lingers over an epigraph? And who would dare make the counter-intuitive argument that “underserved” students of every race and ethnicity should pursue a degree in the Humanities?

I would.

About a million years ago, I was an English major. On breaks, I worked at the up-town dress boutique where my mother, the seamstress who spoke broken English, knelt before wealthy women, pinning up hemlines. Their husbands, often retired leaders of industry, sat in plush chairs waiting for their spendthrift wives, killing time asking me whether I could sew and why I had no accent. When I told them I was an English major at a private university, they snorted and hiccupped, amused that a working-class Cuban immigrant would take such a ludicrous, impractical path.

I had no conscious understanding then about my drive to conquer the language that had conquered my parents, separating us from family and culture. All I had was a heart ignited against tyranny and the will to intervene between my parents and those members of the English-speaking world who mocked them.

“I can’t understand you,” the woman on the other side of the notions counter sneered at my mother.

“I think you can,” I countered.

Embarrassed, the woman counted out the zippers and buttons, the packets of sew-on snaps and spools of hem tape my mother had requested. She had never expected anyone like me, like my mother, to challenge her assumptions about the humanity of others.

In a recent Substack post, the self-styled Democratic populist, Jim Hightower, calls out right-wing politicians in North Carolina, Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, and Mississippi for doing their best to eliminate the Humanities from university curricula:

“The right-wing’s shriveled view,” Hightower writes, “is not about expanding one’s horizon and enriching America’s democratic society—but solely about training students to fit into a corporate workforce, sacrificing the possibility of a fuller life for the possibility of a fatter paycheck.” (11/14/2023)

Hightower is correct, though the shift from teaching students to think, as opposed to teaching them how to make a widget, is at least three decades old now. I have witnessed that shift from the podium at the front of a college classroom.

The decline in the Humanities began the day a rapacious politician, masquerading as an intellectual (“thought leader”), defined higher education as an “economic engine.” Suddenly the process of education became a cumbersome means to a lucrative end, the fastest possible monetization of a young student. The question of how we develop a thoughtful, well-rounded, contributing member of society was dispatched, usurped by a different question. How will the graduate, degree in hand, serve the interests of specific business sectors?

With far too few exceptions, exceptions that break along economic class, we are no longer teaching students to think or asking them about the distance between how the world is and how it could be. We are training students to serve as cogs in a great economic engine. The difficult and slow process of helping them understand their humanity, their position in relation to the past and the future, has been shunted aside. Only students who will never have to worry about money, about steady work, can afford to study literature and philosophy, music and art history, modern languages and the performing arts, to name only a few disciplines within the arc of the Humanities.

I hold to the now quaint idea that education is a means to emancipation. Emancipation is more than physical freedom. Southern slave owners knew that. That’s why slaves caught learning to read and write were beaten to within an inch of their lives, their fingers often amputated. That’s why Frederick Douglass, after risking his life to escape physical shackles, set his sights on the dangerous venture of clear thinking and clear expression. In divisive times, moral persuasion requires full and eloquent sentences; it requires minds broad enough to consider facts and to recognize the corrosive sentimentality and fear that drives so much disinformation.

It has always been difficult to make the grubby, materialistic world care about beautifully balanced periodic sentences or the droll brevity of heroic couplets. No news there, especially not for contemporary writers who, try as they might, cannot make a living writing full time. But a materialistic world without the counterweight of the Humanities is a world with fewer readers interested in complexity, interested in more challenging, less formulaic literary forms. So if anyone should be advocating for the Humanities, it is writers in search of an audience, and isn’t that most of us so much of the time?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG generally agrees with the OP, but he’ll add that the huge increase in the cost of higher education means that a great many students end up owing a zillion dollars in student loans these days. Paying off such loans while living in an expensive city absent family wealth can be a steep hill to climb.

It’s not irrational for a student to regard college as an overpriced luxury absent college delivering a meaningful contribution toward gaining more remunerative employment.

There are a variety of ways of “learning to think” that don’t involve paying tens of thousands of dollars to a college or university.

9 thoughts on “Readings for Writers: How to Avoid Grifters; Or, Why the Humanities Matter”

  1. As a #1 intellection (Clifton Strengths), I’m a big thinker. I also only have an AA in General Ed because I couldn’t decide on a major and the college wasn’t particularly helpful (just a test that said “You can be a fashion designer!”). There are defunutely many ways to think, though, that don’t require going to a college. Certainly you can’t keep going to college and racking up debt for the rest of your life just to think.

    One of the problems, though (noted by Cal Newport in his podcast) is that thinking itself can’t be measured. Companies that people work for are focused more on tangible results that can be measured with metrics. So thinking isn’t prioritized. Which means the individual has to consciously make the effort. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do it.

    You can read a non-fiction book that takes a deep dive into a topic you’re interested in. Or find a blogger/podcaster who pushes the boundaries. Futurists can be very good for this because they start out big thinkers, so their posts/podcasts will be more thoughtful and less marketing buzz. I’ve been taking Great Courses (Egypt) and Smithsonian Associates to feed all of that as well. I also write blog posts on the more intellectual side of writing, which requires me to dig into older records for differing opinions.

    But there’s an even more basic thing: Take the time to actually think. It might be walking around the neighborhood, or sitting back with your feet up on your desk (maybe not that at work though!). I have to do this for my fiction writing…and even there, it’s not a popular thing. I was dissed by a writer because he decided I was doing writing wrong because I didn’t “just start.” You have to know yourself and stand up for what you need. There’s too much pressure these days to race to the thing without thinking.

  2. No one ever said you should stop reading when you leave college. You can choose to learn all of your life, and your opinions can be informed by literally thousands of years of writers. All of this is cheaper and more available than ever before in human history.

    What is needed is an enquiring mind and the strength of one’s expanding convictions. Those are much much harder to come by (and damn near impossible to create in others).

    What businesses need, in general, from young hires is curiosity, competence, integrity, ambition, and enthusiasm. Information and credentials are the least of the issues — those can be learned. College degrees are just a quick rubber stamp of a credential that is worth less and less these days as the colleges continue their debasement.

  3. “We are training students to serve as cogs in a great economic engine.”

    The OP seems to think this is new or limited to “The right-wing’s shriveled view”, when this has been the default of colleges for over two centuries. Universal literacy wasn’t promoted to produce “better human beings” but to produce more productive employees. And he conviniently forgets that the much maligned “common core” curriculum was championed by Ted Kennedy.

    The elites that think liberal arts (and xxx studies) is the only education everybody should get, should try living in a world without doctors, engineers, plumbers, carpenters, or other products of “vocational” careers. Those “cogs” are essential, they aren’t.

    A healthy society needs all types but push come to shove, a society without them will last longer than one without the “vocationals”. They need to get over themselves.

    • <ii“We are training students to serve as cogs in a great economic engine…
      this has been the default of colleges for over two centuries."

      Closer to a century and a half, but yes. The Morell land grant colleges were meant for "the promotion of the agricultural and mechanical arts."

      "Universal literacy wasn’t promoted to produce “better human beings” but to produce more productive employees"

      Yes and no; while for many education os about is producing skills, there's always been those who think it's about producing character. One could go all the way back to Aristotle, but within the American tradition, the Puritans, for example, wanted people to be able to read so that they could read the Bible and understand it for themselves, and you can definitely see that line of thinking carried on in the later New England education reformers, though usually without the religious flavor.

  4. I notice little difference in thinking prowess of a high school grad, college grad, and advanced degree grad. Each may have some specialized knowledge, but the ability to think seems to be a normal distribution over the whole population.

    There is a group that contends they think better than the rest, and are necessary to teach the rest of us how to think. I notice many in that group like to tell each other about their superiority, but can’t find the way in from the rain without a guide dog.

    Humanity moved from sharp sticks to today’s prosperity without the benefit of colleges. Is there any reason believe they did it without knowing how to think?

  5. Excellent comments, all. Thank you.

    I’ll add that sometimes people just prescribe “college” as the universal solution to education. However, even in a good college/university, there are the good, bad and ugly professors. I’d take a good professor in a less-esteemed college over a mediocre one at a highly-esteemed college.

    I was miserable in college until I stumbled upon a very small department filled with very good professors. Even though the nature of my major was not something most might think of as preparation for law or business, it was wonderful for me and ended up contributing in inforseen ways throughout my working life.

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