Parroting romanticized myths about English and humanities (letter)

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Letters to the Editor

To the editor:

I am surprised to see Andrew Newman, chair of the English department at the University at Stony Brook, in his March 9 essay “The English Major, After the End,” repeating Nathan Heller’s unresearched and misrepresented “The End of the English Major,” The New Yorker (Mar. 6. 2023). Heller is widely repeated but almost never criticized responsibly. (See for example Pamela Paul, “How to Get the Kids to Hate English,” New York Times, Mar. 9, 2023)

Following many English professors’ repetitive romanticized myths that falsely oppose subjectivity and objectivity, Newman grasps onto “brain science.” What he cites is not scientific and excludes basic humanity and context, the fundamentals of the historical human sciences. There is a significant literature from the 1930s on of which Newman, Heller, and too many humanities professors seem unaware. (See my own “Myths Shape the Continuing ‘Crisis of the Humanities,’ ” Inside Higher Ed, May 6, 2022)

For his part, Heller misrepresents the “decline” of the humanities while he simultaneously ignores the parallel decreases in the social sciences and to a lesser extent the natural sciences. They began in the 1970s and 1980s, and accelerated during the 1990s and 2000s. To refer to only the humanities “in free fall” since 2013 misreads longer-term trends and makes understanding impossible. Arizona State, under Michael Crow’s presidency, is representative only of ASU.

I write as a professor emeritus of English and history, who was trained in the humanities and the social sciences in the 1970s. I recall clearly that we undergraduates in the late 1960s were under pressure to major in engineering, business, pre-med, or pre-law. My pursuing the Ph.D. was risky; there were few positions when I took my degree in 1975.

Three major currents demand greater attention. First, pressures on young people from middle school forward to concentrate in engineering, computer science, or business for job security only increased.

Two, the so-called “human sciences,” including but not limited to the traditional arts and humanities, failed, and continue to fail, to respond adequately and adapt to changing times and currents. Illogically, we remained isolationist and separatist.

Newman unknowingly reflects this. He demonstrates some of the ways in which English among the humanities falters badly. Turning to neuroscience uncritically is a step backward as is repeating journalist Heller quoting Sanjay Sarma with no context. There are substantial field of studies in reading, writing, and interpretation. Why does he not search t

Third, the entire situation—including the percentages that Heller selectively mentions–is magnified by the over-admission of STEM students and under-admission of all others including humanities since 2010-2021. It is imperative to take changing admissions into account. At the same time, STEM has unacknowledged, if unsurprising, high drop out and flunk out rates, and entering students are not advised that job opportunities and salary levels vary greatly across different fields in Engineering.

–Harvey J. Graff 
Professor Emeritus of English and History, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies
Academy Professor,
Ohio State University 

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