I have to write the question that way. That’s how I heard it when I was in college and decided to major in English, and that’s how I hear it when parents come to campus. It’s an important question, one professors should think about and have a good answer to, but it’s ultimately a utilitarian one and therefore not really a brain-buster. The harder, more philosophical question is, “Why should we study the humanities?” That’s the one Newman asks in The Idea of a University (c. 1854). It’s still the central one, maybe moreso given that the triumph of utilitarianism in the intervening 150 years has taken universities further than ever from being what Newman called a “school of universal knowledge…a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter.” That triumph of utilitarianism is what leads parents to begin and end with the vocational question, as though there is a one-for-one correlation between what you major in and what job you will get. As anyone who’s ever worked with students knows, they major in pretty much whatever and then they go on to do all kinds of things, depending on their temperament and ingenuity and opportunities.

Students sit in my classes with another very good question: “I’m not an English major, so why do I need to study English literature?” It’s not easy to answer, is it? Likewise, when it’s assessment time, people ask: “So what do your students get out of studying English literature?” These are hard questions to answer because the utilitarian urge leads people to want quantifiable results, and the humanities are notoriously resistant to these kinds of quantification. Trying not to beg the question, I think that most humanities professors would insist that their results be studied with the methods used to study the humanities–courses on language or culture simply cannot be translated into numbers without losing all of their meaning in the process, anymore than you can translate King Lear into binary code.

This leads us to a dilemma, however: because students have a hard time seeing the point of studying the humanities, many of them leave college with little appreciation for the kinds of nuances or causation that we’re comfortable with. And they’re socialized to appreciate dollars and cents and other kinds of numbers. So often the people who wind up assessing the humanities, whether professionally or as an outside observer who asks what you can do with an English degree, have difficulty putting them in any kind of meaningful context.

This leads me to an interesting post by Rohan, who writes in reference to determining the “impact” that the humanities have on society:

And here are Patricia Badir and Sandra Tomc responding, in English Studies in Canada, to calls to take the humanities “beyond academia.” Offering a polemical summary of “what the humanities in general, fueled by highly esoteric post-structural theory, have accomplished in the way of widespread social and cultural contributions over the last twenty years,” they begin with the premise that poststructuralism began as a “theory propounded by a tiny priesthood of high intellectuals”:

“But this priesthood had acolytes–graduate students at first, then, by the mid-1980s as ‘theory’ inevitably made its way into the classrooms of ivy league professors, undergraduates. The undergraduates . . . did not uniformly move into Ph.D. programs, thereby assuring theory’s continued enclosure in a specialized community. They moved into a variety of illustrious professions and industries, including, most significantly, America’s powerful and ubiquitous culture industries. . . . [T]he Hollywood of today is ruled by ivy league degrees, most of them earned in the 1980s or 1990s, and most of them . . . heavily larded with humanities courses–courses in English, film studies, American studies, gender studies, history. These people were taught by their professors to value certain kinds of aesthetic objects. As they assumed positions of authority in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they began to patronize films and filmmakers that meshed with what they had been taught was cutting-edge culture. The signature films of the early 1990s . . . featured the ‘politically correct’ identity issues and self-referential formal experimentation lauded in the postmodern classroom: Thelma and Louise; Philadelphia; The Crying Game; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; The Piano; Pulp Fiction; The English Patient. In television, . . . the transformation to postmodern forms has been even more radical: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; The X-Files; Alias. . .”

“One could make the same argument,” they go on, “for the field of journalism,” and they go on to do so, and to the “massive industry” in “‘literary’ objects” including not just books but adaptations. To calls that the humanities address the interests of “civil society,” they reply that “the humanities have, in a large measure, already shaped contemporary civil society”: “the fashions we are being asked to follow are our own.” (ESC 29:1-2, 13-15). I’m sure it’s easy to argue about which are the “signature films” of the 1990s, but the general case that specialist research in the humanities makes its way into the wider world by way of our classrooms seems presumptively strong–but that is just the kind of “impact” apparently discounted by the Research Excellence Framework.

I’m sure more (and perhaps more concrete) examples could be provided by most academics looking at intersections between their own fields of specialization and the world “outside” the academy. A concerted campaign to demonstrate the “impact” of humanities research might do as much good as insisting also that, whatever its “impact,” the work is valuable in itself. And it should probably be carried on not (just), as with my two examples, in the pages of academic journals, but as publicly as possible–in the TLS, but also through blogs, letters to the editor, talking to our neighbours–you name it. Many thousands of our students are out there somewhere, too, who could surely testify to the “impact” of our work, not just on their cinematic tastes, but on their thinking, reading, and voting lives. After all, the REF may be specific to the UK, but the narrow version of utilitarianism it represents is not.

Making these kinds of connections seems crucial to me as a way of explaining what it is that we’re doing. Of course, as soon as we do that, we’ve got to be ready for some conservative knucklehead like Horowitz (not to be confused with thoughtful conservatives like Andrew Sullivan) to come along and immediately flatten out all of the distinctions we’re trying to make. Probably by calling these studies some kind of grand cultural conspiracy to “derstroy our Amurkan values.” Still the moment seems propitious to start making these kinds of arguments–after all, all publicity is good publicity! Rather than seeing ourselves in perpetual crisis–a modernist gesture, which is odd considering that we live in a postmodern world–perhaps we should see ourselves as living at an opportune moment.

I say all this because, as someone on the tenure track, I’ve become very committed to explaining to my students what it is that we’re doing in my classes, how it differs from some of the other expectations that they’re asked to meet in other classes, and–very occasionally–why these things might be important. I’m also interested in explaining these things to parents at open house. Wait a minute–typing that up on my blog probably just got me another stint at open house! Oh well, can’t talk this talk and not expect to be asked to walk the walk. Parents of my students–be in touch and I’ll tell you why your kid needs to be an English major.