Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Worth Of An English Degree

A long time ago, I informed my father that I intended to get an English degree. My father -- a mechanical engineer -- asked, "What the hell can you do with that?"

"I can write for a living," I said. "Or, I can always teach." The rest is history. I taught -- and now that I'm retired -- I write.

I have always believed that my English degree was a superb investment. Thus, I was pleased to read Mandy Pipher's op-ed in The Toronto Star. There are far fewer students studying English these days than there were twenty-five years ago:

Many of us seem to hold — consciously or not — an underlying belief that the skills gained through higher education in English are largely irrelevant to the advancement or maintenance of our society. What, after all, is so important about an essay on the use of metaphor in Coleridge or so urgent about another analysis of the allusions in The Waste Land? Are these not esoteric individual interests best pursued in leisure time?
And so science, engineering, and medical research in Canada is funded at three times the rate of the humanities and social sciences, and StatsCan data shows that undergraduate enrolment in humanities programs has dropped to half of what it was in the early 1990s, as a percentage of overall enrolment. Across the country there are fewer students enrolled in undergraduate humanities degrees now than there were in 1992-93, despite overall enrolment having increased by almost 700,000 students. Why should we care?

That data helps explain why the skills one learns from studying English are sadly lacking these days:

What, for example, are some of the most stubborn fault lines running beneath many of the current, deeply troubling, fractures in Western democratic societies? A distrust of rational discourse about differing points of view; confusing a strong emotional response with inalienable truth; an inability to parse good information and legitimate sources from the bad and disingenuous; a lack of empathy for the humanity of people different from oneself.
These are the skills that a good English education teaches: Critical thinking; analysis of language; insight into the minds of people from different places and times. Ultimately, it’s an understanding of the vastness and interconnectedness of the world — its subtleties, stories, and strengths.
The benefits of these skills for a society may not be as immediately evident or clearly measurable as those of technology or medicine, but they are just as vital to its health. In the age of Trump, we ignore them at our peril.

Shortly after I made my announcement, my father sat down with me to watch Lawrence Olivier's version of  Hamlet on our television. When the film got to the beginning of Act V, he turned to me and asked, "Why the hell is everybody dying?"

My father -- may he rest in peace -- was a good man. He gave me his name. But he did not insist that I do as he did. And, by the end of the movie, he understood why so many people had died.

Image: Old Hollywood Films


Toby said...

Many years ago a reporter asked the retiring CEO of a huge corporation what one should study in order to run a transnational. The CEO's answer? Humanities! A leader has to understand the big picture.

Lorne said...

An excellent post, Owen. Now, when we need them most, the skills that a humanities education imparts seem to be lost in the mists of an earlier age. We will all live to regret it.

Owen Gray said...

I agree, Toby. A CEO should be more than a technocrat.

Owen Gray said...

I've always believed, Lorne, that the goal of a university education is to teach people how to think. These days the goal seems to be to teach people how to do. Doing without thinking first usually ends in disaster.

Steve said...

English Majors are to History Majors as Dentists are to Doctors:) Still lots of value in both

The Mound of Sound said...

Does the decline in English studies at the post-secondary level rest on the subject's foundational decline in primary and secondary education? I learned from a neighbour's daughter, a recently retired high school vice principal, that cursive writing is no longer taught in the public school system in B.C. Kids are taught to print but quickly return to their preferred mode of communication, their tablets and smartphones.

With the keyboard comes spelling and grammar correction. Why bother learning that when your device handles it for you?

English is in decline but it's not going down alone. History is another example of an addled secondary system. I have hired a lot of support staff over the years including recent school leavers looking for entry-level jobs. Some of them had done quite well in school but emerged oblivious to their world, even their own nation. What is critical thinking without some core knowledge base to work from?

Our universities have been re-engineered into advanced-level trade schools, focused on churning out graduates with skills narrowly tailored to current market needs. Those are shifting sands, hardly foundational.

In law school I studied jurisprudence, the philosophy of law, under a visiting professor from Trinity College, Dublin, Liam McCaughey. It complimented my keen interest in the ancient and increasingly obscure law of equity. In one lecture McCaughey addressed law schools as trade schools turning out graduates ready to tackle the intricacies of corporate law, secured instruments and the tax code but barely capable of thinking as lawyers for lack of awareness of legal philosophy. In subsequent years I found a solid grounding in jurisprudence and equity could be decisive in contests with counsel who were lacking in those disciplines.

When we look at the current prime minister and his father the absence of that philosophical grounding in Justin is obvious. His father was dubbed the "philosopher prince" but for all that his unswerving guide was "reason over passion." Justin, teary-eyed at times, has criticized his father for his sometimes flint-like attitudes yet it was that very quality that contributed to the vision that brought us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the just society. Then again, Pierre was schooled by Jesuits and forged on picket lines and in wars with Duplessis.

The Mound of Sound said...

Owen Gray said...

Dentists and doctors have jobs waiting for them, Steve. But before they become either, they may have been History or English majors.

Owen Gray said...

Thanks for the link, Mound. What Gildersleeve calls "laziness," some might call "curiosity." Our youngest son graduated from Mike Harris' "reformed" high school curriculum. His senior English courses were a pale version of what we used to teach. When he wrote an essay, he wrote to a formula -- an early version of texting.

Neo-liberals have attacked public education since their ascension to power. They know that citizens who know how to think are their biggest enemies.

John B. said...

The pat answers that derive from my narrow perspective are easy to obtain and I'm able to reach conclusions much faster than the critical thinkers. Time's a wastin'.

I've found that when I take the time to examine a question from any perspective other than the one in which I've become invested, or consider that there may be evidence I haven't observed that supports opposing views, that I begin to question those pat answers so essential to the support of my previous conclusions. I become very confused. That's when I generally say, "Well, all I know is ... ." I must have quick conclusions.

Owen Gray said...

When Copernicus declared the earth rotated around the sun -- or when Darwin declared that life was an evolutionary process -- each man confused people, John. Confusion is the first reaction to new information. Gradually, we put that information in context.

And life goes on.

Hugh said...

Being very proficient in English will help most people be better at their job, no matter what field they're in, I think.

An English degree is one good way to improve you're English.

Owen Gray said...

I concur, Hugh. A post graduate degree of some kind may be necessary. But an undergraduate degree in English is a good place to start.

Hugh said...

Learning history is also a very good thing, though you don't need to go to University for that.

Owen Gray said...

Quite true, Hugh. And, as George Santayana said, those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Anonymous said...

Hugh, I agree with your comments about English in your 12:20 post, but, like the English teacher with the red pen I cannot resist commenting on your use of 'you're English' (contraction meaning: 'you are English'.

Now retired, I began my career in teaching with an Honours English Language and Literature degree, and spent most of my career in Human Resources. In the mid 90s I recall CEOs saying that they had had their fill of MBAs and wanted grads from the Humanities because they were good critical thinkers who could adapt to several professions and fields of work. Cheers!...Brian P.