Fails to review their past efforts: This Sunday, we were struck by Verlyn Klinkenborg’s lament for the English major.
Klinkenborg teaches non-fiction writing. He seems like a good, genial person. Despite these facts, he has been part of the New York Times editorial board since 1997.
In a way, that affiliation was the source of our puzzlement.
In this weekend’s Sunday Review, Klinkenborg offered a well-written lament for the dwindling English major. As it turns out, the English major is going the way of all flesh:
KLINKENBORG (6/23/13): The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times. So says a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so says the experience of nearly everyone who teaches at a college or university.Today, there are fewer English majors. For ourselves, we majored in philosophy, with an emphasis on reading the same three pages over and over and over.
Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure—from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large—to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.
In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. 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.
In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.
The English major is going away. As Klinkenborg lamented the loss, we asked ourselves where he has been as a New York Timesman over the past twenty years:
KLINKENBORG: What many undergraduates do not know—and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them—is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.In theory, these comments make sense. Then we remembered the world.
Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing—the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.
Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.
No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it—no matter how or when it was acquired—knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.
Klinkenborg! When you review our degraded press culture, you are looking at the work of the English majors! To cite one prominent example, the “Creeping Dowdism” against which we were warned came to us straight outta the English department.
Every four years, the Democratic nominee reminds its inventor of Mr. Darcy. Other than that, she makes her shit up. And the school of “thought” this person invented has helped change the press corps world.
This week, we are observing a startling expression of modern press corps culture. As the pundit corps wastes its time on the sayings of a celebrity chef, the press corps has been driving its themes by simply inventing false facts.
This has gone on at the New York Times, in op-ed columns and news reports. And Klinkenborg and the English majors will say nothing about it.
The open invention of bogus facts is a basic part of modern press culture. Klinkenborg didn’t complain about this practice in the horrible year of 1999. He won’t complain about it today, nor is he likely to notice the fact that facts are being invented.
Klinkenborg seems like a genial person. Beyond that, he knows the right things to say. But what does he tell his eager young students when they ask him, citing examples, about the way he and his guild simply invent bogus facts?
Is that how a true English major would act? Given their well-known high regard for their precious inheritance?