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