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Guest Blog: The Future of English Literature and the Humanities

In this guest post, acclaimed author Warren Adler offers an impassioned defence of the study of English Literature and the Humanities and how majoring in English has made him who he is.

I am a proud, grateful, and militant holder of a degree in English Literature. It has enhanced and enriched my life in ways that have given me insight into the human condition. It has introduced me to the great communicators and storytellers of ages past, offering wisdom, knowledge, joy, insight, clarity, and the essential power and civilizing influence of words.

I have spent a long and fruitful life surrounded by some of the great minds and amazing imaginations ever recorded, and I continue to populate my mental compendium and physical library with many more. I cannot conceive of a life without the close friendship of great storytellers like Joyce, Trollope, Thackeray, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Austin, and the literary gods of our own American culture like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Roth, and many more of equal worth. Indeed, without the tutelage and wonder of Shakespeare, what would we know about the truth of human behavior?

Books5The case for literature and its study has long been made. From the days of our distant ancestors who told their stories on the walls of caves and in scrolls, the Word has long been the essential channel to knowledge, understanding, and insight. Without such communicators we would be bereft, lost in the jungle of ignorance.

It has been claimed that an English degree will not place one on the top of the job list, that such a degree offers fewer opportunities for earning potential in the face of technological skills and specialties that our society currently demands for its commerce. Compounding this is the decline of job choices in the Humanities. Even the potential for careers in academia is becoming increasingly diminished. This is true not only in English studies, but also in subjects such as Philosophy, History, Ethics, Greek and Latin, and Classical Studies.

There has always been a deep chasm between commerce and art, and there are those who choose to spend their lives in the study of subjects that have deep intrinsic value to them while having dubious commercial ambitions. These artists stubbornly and blissfully follow their calling. It is as necessary to them as oxygen. Those with this mysterious calling will never find contentment if they abandon or compromise their purpose.

I could not conceive of having made any other choice but majoring in English Literature. The great storytellers that I befriended through their books, and the teachers and students who chose to live within that circle with me, inspired me to stake my life and future in creating works of the imagination, my stories. I never had a choice.

Yes, the decline of the Humanities challenges our present. Ultimately though, their pursuit is essential to our culture, and sooner or later we will realize that there is truth to the old chestnut ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ Its necessity will come roaring back.

Warren Adler is the author of more than 40 novels and several stage and film adaptations. Currently in development is the Hollywood sequel to The War of the Roses, titled The War of the Roses: The Children, along with other projects including Capitol Crimes, a television series based on Adler’s Fiona Fitzgerald mystery novels, as well as a feature film based on Warren Adler and James Humes’ WWII thriller, Target Churchill, in association with Myles Nestel and Lisa Wilson of The Solution Entertainment Group. You can read more about this and Warren’s other projects at his website.

Image: Pile of old books (author: Lin Kristensen), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on November 3, 2014, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Hear, hear! (Although the song from Avenue Q is clever – “What Do You Do with a B/A in English?”.)

  2. I’ve always wanted to study some branch of the humanities whenever I finally get to college. It saddens me to see what’s happening to the arts.

  3. Yes! I had the good fortune to teach at the college and high school levels for 25 years before becoming a Mentor Teacher and a tutor in English speaking and writing skills. Technology certainly has its attributes, but my feeling is that the more technology the less human communication.People don’t talk to one another, face to face, as much. Now, they text or phone constantly. We will lose a lot if the humanities are abandoned. I remember teaching grammar and writing to an all-male adult college class years ago. Mondays we worked on grammar. Wednesdays we worked on writing skills. Fridays were my English literature days. The guys really got into Fridays. After one class, one of my students, a computer whiz, told me,” You know, I can’t wait until Friday. It’s like entering a fairy land.” We need to exercise both sides of our brains. Perhaps, with the deplorable lack of correctness in using the English language these days, a B.A. in English might land a graduate a job in editing business letters and articles. Dont’ give up hope!

  4. Excellent post. I could not have made a different choice than to major in English myself – my love of books and what I have gained from them has made my life wonderful and exactly what I would have wanted. – Tyler Tichelaar

  5. Although my degree is in the Teaching of Writing, I have discovered one cannot teach writing without the reading aspect. I contemplated going back for my PhD in English Lit. *shouldawouldacoulda*

  6. I envy those who have studied English Literature. In my humble view, in management courses, there should be an elective option for ‘Lessons from Literature.’

  7. My sentiments exactly. My high school guidance counselor specifically told me that I would do well in a Literature course. I believed her totally, however, I chose to major in Journalism because it would land me a better paying job. Of course it did, but I wasn’t happy. That was thirty years ago. Now, thanks to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), I am able to study all Literature and other Humanities courses I want. I may not get a degree from it. At fifty, I’m not aiming for certificates or degrees anymore. Just the joy of learning and doing what I love most. I hope the young Shakespeares, Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of our day wouldn’t make the same lapse of judgement as I did.

  8. Reblogged this on The Literarium.

  9. My education in the humanities and degrees in Lit have enriched and enhanced my world view immeasurably, I can talk to anyone about anything and usually win any argument in which I find myself in. IT’s can’t, STEM majors can’t etc, It’s a pity people don’t get this. A humanities education teaches one how to think and gives one references to use throughout the ages :)

  10. inspiredbybooks

    I agree with this article, and am an English major myself with no regrets. As a (relatively new) blogger about books, I had someone ask me recently why I bothered doing it, since I wasn’t getting paid. Certainly our culture believes that if something has no monetary value, it has no value at all. Of course I am also thankful that engineers, and not English majors, maintain the Golden Gate Bridge. To each their own passion, and hopefully the humanities will once again be viewed as equal to math and science in their importance.

  11. I would agree with this article even though my own degree was not in English Lit. I work in a university and, more and more, I see the commercialisation of the college. It has become less about knowledge and growth and more about the ‘production’ of young entrepreneurs (which everybody must be today it seems). The Philosophy Music and English departments get hit worst by this but it sends shockwaves throughout all faculties.

    My Uncle is, in his retirement, pursuing an English Lit degree and I think this may be more and more common as time goes on. But I am glad there are still people who will hold the torch for the English Lit degree when they are young and no one should ever have to feel ashamed of their passion just because it is unlikely to come with a six figure price tag.

    I agree with inspiredbybooks too. I blog for fun, for friendship, to learn something about reading and writing etc but so many articles out there suggest that blogging should only be for supplementary income purposes – which in my mind misses the point. Money is nice of course, but it’s not why most of us do it.

  12. Brilliant. Just brilliant. I too am a long ago Eng. Lit. grad, and I believe that the lessons we can learn from literature have a PROFOUND effect on us. What I most want from a book is to be extended, challenged, and made more than I was before reading it. A great piece of literature is the best way I can learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes, to some extent, and I revere those writers who can make me inhabit and understand what it is to be ‘other’, whilst aware that that other shares something with me. I have learned to at least try to live life more compassionately, through books which have taken me, imaginatively, into the darkness and the blazing light of what we have been, are, and will be capable of.

    The burning need to make sense of the world, to make the pattern of story, to elevate, entertain, amuse, shock, enlighten, excite pity, terror and all the rest which literature does – well how impoverished | would feel without it!

  13. I know exactly what the author is talking about although I studied Computer Science in college. I’ve never been a fan of subjects related to technologies or business. The problem nowadays is that we are lured to those two fields by the idea that we will be making more many than graduates with arts majors. The only subjects that I really enjoyed in school where subjects like English, Art, Foreign Languages, and even in college I loved studying Psychology 101. That’s why, after studying Computer Science, I realized that I am not meant to work in anything related to technology. I know deep inside that my calling in this life is to be a psychologist by day and a writer/poet by night.

  14. Yes, it is a sad day when desire for Humanities subjects are declining especially when ‘learned ones’ are poking only for the current love of the business world.

  15. Interesting article. ‘English degree will not place one on the top of the job list, that such a degree offers fewer opportunities for earning potential in the face of technological skills and specialties that our society currently demands for its commerce’. In humanities we are concerned with our nature,for which literature affords us view life in its kaleidoscopic variety. In a career of commerce and technology any one may amass wealth if one is willing to play the rules of the mart. But is that life?
    Like Wllie Loman(Death of a Salesman) there comes a moment when he has nothing more to sell. His escape from reality of living in the daily business of selling and going up in ladder, will come back to haunt him. Humanities equip us to come to grips with life itself in which one follows his own inclinations and abilities to make a living as best he can. If we are living in the age of iron it is because we have made money the common currency and not what our souls can find nourishment.

  16. I couldn’t agree more! Studying Literature and becoming a writer are the best two decisions I’ve ever made. It’s so sad that these skills are so undervalued… I hope it will indeed come “roaring back”!

  17. I don’t regret studying English for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Although I work in a field far removed from literature (public health statistics), my love for words and storytelling has served me well. If I could go back and change anything however, I would have gotten a BA in World Literature instead of English, just to broaden my horizons. As it was, I pretty studied the same authors over and over for 4 years, between the two degrees. For the most part that was fine since many of those authors (Austen, Eliot, Woolf, Forster, Sinclair Lewis, Rebecca Harding Davis) I happily read on my own anyway. But I think it would have done me a bit more good to read works by authors outside the US and British canons. The world is a large place and no one author (except perhaps Shakespeare) can represent it all.

  18. Reblogged this on Bibliophage and commented:
    I am a card toting English Major myself, so this was interesting.

  19. I’m inclined to agree with ashokbhatia about the ‘lessons from literature.’ What is so sad is that we don’t seem to learn from them.

  20. As a professor of English (and obviously, a former English major) I couldn’t agree with you more. The problem is making the case to the general public. The only question I ever get from prospective students and parents is, “What can you do with an English.” Although there are lots of jobs English majors can do, one gets tired of having to justify my existence over and over again.

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