Last month, I was listening to one of the fluffy, human interest stories my NPR station regularly puts on. This one was on “Past Loves Day,” a day (September 17th) apparently designated to immerse oneself in the poignant nostalgia of all those loves lost or given up. It’s all very cheeseball and hokey, but it got me thinking of my own lack of past loves. I don’t actually have any. I did have a middle school “boyfriend” but that consisted mainly of making out behind the tennis courts after school. We were twelve, and I don’t think that counts. By fourteen, I was with Christophe, and we cleaved to each other then, never yet to part, almost nineteen years later. I think that one counts.
Sometimes, when people find this out, they gape, open mouthed, and say something like, “You never broke up? Never saw anyone else? Even for a little bit?” We did not. So I thought about this foolish Past Loves Day, and also about the less foolish premise underlying it: that these relationships enrich a life, open new avenues of understanding, and broaden a person’s horizons. I don’t feel particularly limited, constrained, or hemmed in by their lack, and the reason is clear: I was an English major.
When I started college, I had no idea what I would want to do for a job after graduating. I didn’t know if I would go to grad school, and if so, what for? My interests skittered and bounced around from ecology to poetry to history to chemistry. I flirted with several possible courses of study, and settled upon one of the most maligned. English majors, in our ramshackle falling-down Bartlett Hall, with our poetry nights and English Society meetings in a dusty room on the second floor, were derided and mocked by fellow students and by, I suppose, well meaning persons who asked, “And what will you do with that?” No one in the Engineering program was asked such a thing, nor the cynical business majors, though I think the question might be equally appropriate for many of them. “Why study the humanities,” much of the world seemed to sneer, “So you can use proper grammar while you’re serving me my coffee?”
I don’t remember how I used to answer these questions then, but my answer now is clear. I studied the humanities to become human. I’ve just finished reading Mark Edmundson’s collection of essays Why Teach? and his piece on English majors is what, if I ‘d had it then, I would have xeroxed and handed out to anyone who asked me any iteration of that derisive question, “what are you going to do with that?” Edmundson has this to say about our ever dwindling tribe,
The English major is, first of all, a reader. […] But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves–they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay–to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.
Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, of plays, and of poetry, alters the mind like nothing else can. I’ve seen movies that have stayed with me and affected me profoundly. I’ve read history, ecology and other sciences that have made me understand the world and its human and non-human machinery as I had never done before. But reading as an English major reads, that alters, to use an unfashionable term, the soul. The images from movies sometimes play across my mind again, but it’s as if they’re still on a screen. Two dimensional, in the lighting and the mood created by the director. The images I carry from books are indistinguishable from my own memory. Just as dreams feel real, like a true, though bizarre memory, so do all the books in my mind. The woodshed where Sethe sawed into her daughter’s neck is dim and dusty and conjurable as my own shed. Dickens’ London, grimy, grim and cast all in grays is vividly real to me, as are the fetid, squalid St. Petersburg rooms where Raskolnikov crouches like a rat in Crime and Punishment.
And if the places are real as my own memories, no less so are the interior lives of the characters. Our society may be coming around to an understanding of how this works; a study out this month points specifically to the reading of literary fiction as fostering empathy (as compared to the reading of non-fiction or of less highbrow sorts of novels and stories.) How does it do this (and I assure you, it does) and what’s it going to mean if English majors go extinct (as appears to be the trend)?
When I read Beloved, I had no children. The idea of killing my own child was all at once abhorrent, fascinating but largely academic. Was Sethe mentally ill? Was she accountable? Was she right, that they’d be better off dead? We would discuss it, write about it, read what other smart people had to say about it, and then move on to another book. But books stay with you, and Beloved may have been submerged in my mind for many years, until I had children, and they had physical bodies, and I watched them sleep and imagined my hands grabbing their slender ankles and swinging them headfirst into a wall, or laying the points of a sawblade against their necks and beginning to pull. Less a question of “was it justifiable?” it had become, “could I do it, and what would it take to drive me there?” I am white, privileged, living in the 21st century, with considerable comforts and assurances, and luxuries, but can I surmount all that and fly to that woodshed with her and look for what tools I can find? I can.
I went on from my English degree to become a veterinarian, and thence to teach biology. I am now making my living off the sciences, smiled upon by the current mania for STEM education. I love biology; it is endlessly fascinating, endlessly amazing, and evolutionary theory is one of the most elegant and beautiful overarching ways of understanding the world that there could ever be. I think I’m pretty good at teaching it, and I hope to become excellent with time. I am glad of my advanced education in science. But I am far more grateful for my English degree. It made me human. I hope the beginnings of this appreciation for English majors starts to turn the tide. That we become viewed not as snobs with a rareified and irrelevant skill set, but as just the opposite: people with an unusual ability to inhabit the minds of other people; to understand, deeply, why they do the things they do, even if those things are terrible, horrific, and seemingly un-understandable. I hope this is the beginning of the rehabilitation of a humanities education. After all, without the humanities, where will we get our humans?