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Thought leadership

Where the Humanities Need No Defense

(5 October 2017)

Professor of Journalism at Emerson College in the US, Ted Gup, spent a term at Durham University as a writer-in-residence. He looks back on his time in the North East of England – 3,148 miles from home. 

I am sitting in the student dining room, when lunchtime talk turns to Romeo and Juliet. Later, at dinner, we who sit at High Table will dress as characters from Shakespeare plays. I will go as a night watchman, shouldering a faux blunderbuss and caped in green wool, smelling of a secondhand store.

On Sunday afternoon — I repeat, a Sunday — a handful of students and I gather in the Senior Common Room of St. Cuthbert’s Society to discuss good writing. No credit is given, no attendance taken. They have all done the reading. At an evening writing seminar, students nod knowingly at references to W.H. Auden and W.B. Yeats. Familiarity with Homer is a given.

These past six months as writer in residence at Durham University in England, I must have been dreaming. The department of English studies, nearly 50 strong and consistently ranked in England’s top five, has all the concentrators it can handle — more than 350 undergrad and 80 grad students — and is looking to hire more faculty. Four of their ranks — and popular they are — are medievalists. A local pub is named the Shakespeare. The university’s former chancellor was the author Bill Bryson. The Oxfam charity shop on Elvet Bridge is more like a lending library, its shelves tight with the works of essayists, novelists, poets, historians, philosophers, and classicists. There is sometimes a queue at the register. At formal dinners in the university’s thousand-year-old castle, the benediction is in Latin. Translations are unnecessary.

Yes, I must be dreaming.

Or might as well be. I am 3,148 miles from my home in Boston, itself a city of universities, but a place, like most in America, where the humanities are on the defensive, eclipsed by STEM, struggling for credibility, and expected to demonstrate utility.

Recent decades have not been kind to the humanities. Attrition has thinned their ranks. Students often begrudgingly take "Hum" courses just to check off requirements, and the bean counters eye departmental budgets. An American Academy of Arts and Sciences report found that the number of humanities majors fell 9 percent from 2012 to 2014 — to 6 percent of the total. Even at Harvard, since 1954 the number of humanities majors has dropped from 36 percent to just 20 percent (when including history). And that’s only half the story. As any parent or student soon to be saddled with debt has repeatedly been reminded, humanities don’t pay — they are, we’re told, a one-way ticket to ruin.

Here the humanities thrive, and a pure unadulterated passion for literature, history, philosophy, and the classics persists almost oblivious to the siege endured by counterparts across the sea. Granted, in Durham too, the white man’s canon of literature has moved over to make room for worthy voices from feminists, postcolonials, and others, but with little observable expense to the likes of Donne and Dickens. Although Durham enjoys a place on the World Heritage List, it is neither backward nor resistant to change. For several days the rainbow flag of gay pride fluttered over the castle parapets where once the Prince Bishop presided, and the sciences don’t seem to be in the least put off by the humanities’ success. Indeed, even the budding scientists here seem to reinforce the humanities. A graduate student and botanist with the fortuitous name of Flora speaks of plant processes using metaphors and similes any humanist would applaud.

What accounts for the success of the humanities here? A devoted faculty to be sure, but that is not unique to these shores. A familiarity with the topography and traditions of the humanities? That’s the "it’s in the water" argument, and there might well be something to it. Surely the late poet A.E. Housman feels more intimate if you yourself are a Shropshire lad. Enter a church in Twickenham and read the plaque over the poet Alexander Pope’s remains, or stand in Oxford’s Christ Church between brass tablets honoring the political philosopher John Locke and the aesthetician John Ruskin. That helps give readings an intimacy and immediacy they might not otherwise have. Durham’s ancient cathedral and castle also wield a certain influence over the mind, conferring an air of continuity to history, and demonstrating, in the most literal way, the benefits of a solid foundation. And isn’t reading Latin a bit easier if, like some students here, you grew up near Hadrian’s Wall or an ancient aqueduct?

Even today’s occupationally minded, goal-oriented society prizes the critical thinkers, the synthesizers, the creators, the articulate. Some 86 percent of Durham’s English majors are reported to have a job or are studying in graduate or professional school within six months of graduation. But from my conversations with students, I suspect that even more elemental reasons for pursuing the humanities are at play. They seek a greater level of self-awareness, a sense of purpose beyond career, a humane outlook, and tools with which to better navigate life along aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual lines. I think most neither feel the need for, nor seek, justification for their attraction to the humanities.

As a former English and classics major myself, I find both solace and sorrow in all this: solace that on this island, in this town, there exists a place where those who read Thucydides or Sappho, Tennyson or Browning, Trollope or Brontë need not be apologists nor cast as outliers; but sorrow that in my own country, humanities majors are a beleaguered minority, marginalized and made to feel self-indulgent and anachronistic. In fairness, Durham is not emblematic of the whole nation but is something of an island within an island, and Durham grads do not face anywhere near the staggering debt levels of American students, so the consequences of their choices are neither dire nor defining.

And students here are not perfect. They drink too much, text too much, and are perhaps a little too respectful toward authority. But unlike many an American student, their speech is not peppered with "likes" and "you knows"; they know how to craft a clear and concise sentence. I am more than happy to field the occasional "whilst" in exchange for the proper subjunctive. And their exposure to the humanities has elevated their cultural, aesthetic, historical, and political observations, giving many a considerable maturity of mind.

The confluence of architecture, history, and literature also helps make the case for the humanities, as when a university library here hosted an exhibition on the anniversary of the World War I Battle of the Somme and its impact on local families. Photographs, art, text, and dioramas brought the war home. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, widely studied in classes, were the perfect prisms through which to view that epoch event. History and literature here are inseparable, and severing them would come at the expense of both. As the American poet Archibald MacLeish observed of writers, "They write to give reality to experience."

What is more relevant (Oh, how I loathe that word!) than the pursuit of that which makes us feel more whole, more connected with the world around us and to each other? I am reminded of John Keats’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

These days in particular — with a burgeoning xenophobia and a dismissal of intellectuals as elitists — no one needs the humanities more than American students do. Within those readings reside the sort of intellectual heresies that produced our appetite for liberty and tolerance, and our vision of citizenship and society. One of my favorite authors, the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, had much to say on this score, and his words are as applicable to the humanities as to life itself — indeed the two are inextricable. He lamented in his famous 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness" that "the modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake."

Meanwhile many an American university struggles to make the case for the humanities or fend off doubts, while walking a tightrope of political correctness. The website for Harvard’s English department defensively features a pie chart showing the array of jobs its graduates have gotten and posts testimonials showing that English is not a dead end. This year a new diversity requirement was approved that is designed to focus attention on authors "marginalized" for historical reasons by "racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity," to quote its department chair, James Simpson.

I will soon return to the United States and to an American classroom. I will do all I can to import what I can from the experience here, but I concede that more than an ocean divides us. Already I am plotting my next stay in Durham, if for no other reason than to prove to myself that it is not an academic Brigadoon.

Ted Gup is a professor of journalism at Emerson College and just finished a term as writer in residence at Durham University.

 This article was originally published on The Chronicle of Higher Education.