Lee Siegel in the WSJ last week asked "Who Ruined the Humanities?" and I've been musing about a story ever since. His launching point is the statistic that humanities majors comprised 14% of undergraduate majors 50 years ago, but only 7% today. His real beef, though, is with the college English lit class:
Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
As the daughter of an English professor, with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in comparative literature, of course that got my attention.
What you're probably expecting next is a full-throated defense of the English major. Somewhat to my befuddlement, I'm not sure I can give it. Sure, Siegel's description is largely caricature, at least as compared to my experience at Georgetown in the early 90s. Sure, the study of literature, like the rest of the humanities, can teach students how to read and write critically, to think analytically, to engage with and appreciate the world.
But I'm not sure it does that. I was a dedicated reader by the time I hit middle school. My father taught me how to write before I got to college, bloodying my high school first drafts with so much red ink it was hard to see anything else. Of course Georgetown made me a better writer and thinker. But, as one of my professors observed, college isn't equipped to teach the uninitiated how to write (forget trying to do that in law school).
I have 3 children now--would I advise them to be English majors? I feel like a heretic typing these words, but I'm not sure I would. As a parent, I know I should talk to my kids more about net present values of degrees, both undergrad and graduate. Debate has lately been swirling about whether a law degree is worth a million dollars, $330,000, or a hill of beans (Campos, Tamanaha). These are vital conversations for us as legal educators to have. And as a parent I'll no doubt have them, too, in 20 years or so.
But what about that whole, "follow your passion and everything will work out" advice that you hear from every successful entrepreneur/politician/scientist? What about doing what you love? I majored in English because I liked it and I was good at it. I went to grad school for the same reason, but along the way I found Siegel's "drudgery and toil". I knew it was time to leave when I had stopped reading for pleasure. Indeed, one of my Georgetown professors told another classmate she was unsurprised to hear I was leaving graduate school--I loved reading too much to study literature. Plus it became starkly clear that the best I could do would be a tenure track job in the middle of nowhere, and I'd be lucky to get it.
I went to law school because I thought it would be interesting. I surprised everyone who knew me for choosing corporate work for the same reason. It worked out well for me. And the odds of getting a job were, then as now, a heckuva lot better than for literature Ph.Ds.
I'm emphatically not Pollyannically chirping, "Just follow your passion, and the rest will take care of itself!" The best lessons of the law school scam movement seem to me to be to take a hard look at why you're going to law school, how much it will cost, and how well you think you'll do. Reevaluate after the first year. For us legal educators, think hard about how to fix law school. But for some people it's absolutely the right decision. The question is how best to sort, right? Education, like any investment, is in some sense a gamble. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
I know I struck the right passion/payoff balance, but will my kids be able to do the same? I'm still not sure what to tell them in 20 years. Luckily for me, they probably won't even ask my opinion...
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