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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Words are Worlds

As far as I can tell, there are two ways humans seek to understand their world: with numbers and with stories. Many things can be quantified -- the rate of polar ice cap melting, the dollar amount it takes to live the meagerest of lives, the number of children who do not have health insurance. All of those can also be qualified -- with stories of drowned polar bears, of members of Congress who spent a week trying to live on $5 a day in foodstamps, of a specific child who died for lack of what would have been routine medical care if only she'd had insurance.

Some people prefer the numbers. They like data. They want facts. They envision change as being about shifting the numbers that make us uncomfortable more towards numbers with which we can live. (Unacceptable: the 8-9% of the ice lost per decade means there could be no polar ice at all within my lifetime. Acceptable: I'm not sure; ask the scientists.) Most often, foundations, granting institutions, researchers, governments agencies, and other bodies with authority to set protocols or disburse funds work in numbers. They think in calculated effects. They want "proof."

Then, there are the other people who prefer stories. These are ones who, when they hear that the United States ranks behind at least 19 other countries in the world in literacy rates, shrug and feel okay with the fact that we have a 99% adult literacy rate. But when they hear the story of their neighbor's father's near-death-experience because he had never admitted he couldn't read and therefore overdosed on his prescription medication by accident because he misunderstood the dosing directions, those same people run right on down to their local public library and volunteer to teach in the adult literacy classes.

I'm not here to say one way of processing the world is better than the other, that one type of "evidence" should be more convincing than another. I understand perfectly well that different types of information are needed for different types of decision making and different calls to action.

But here's what I will say: I think there is a sad and worrisome lack of recognition in many people's discussions of education today of the power of stories -- of language -- to shape the world.

In the rhetoric of improving our educational system, we hear all the time about the need to better students in science and math, to render them a technology generation that can compete in a global marketplace. In these high-flown speeches, no one says much about reading and writing. The old educational model that assumed a college degree created a Man of Letters has been replaced by the notion that a college degree is necessary for employment. In many ways, this transformation is welcome. First of all, obviously, because now college degrees can create Women of things as well. And secondly, because the assumption that education has a purpose (rather than simply being the elite province of the rich who don't have to labor for a living) is democratizing and empowering.

But we have lost something as well. Those old-fashioned degrees of the nineteenth-century, or even of the 1950s, were what we would now call Liberal Arts degrees. They were degrees that demanded rigorous and sustained reading, careful thinking, the ability to choose one's words wisely, and the honing of one's rhetoric.

Nowadays, the majority of college students, quite practically and reasonably, want their college degrees to give them skills. To prepare them for the workplace. To net them jobs. Of course, there are still "elite" institutions that operate on liberal arts principles. But the vast majority of college students see college as a stepping stone for a particular career. Hence, they do not major in the Humanities, because, of course, English is not a job title. Nor is History or Philosophy. These are subjects, but they are not careers (unless, and only if, you add the word Teacher after them).

They do not major in English because their parents say to them, a tone of skepticism in their voices, "what are you going to do with a degree in English?" And so, they choose Accounting instead. And they take the bare minimum of required courses in the Humanities as freshmen and move on, some of them gratefully, and others regretfully because they love language; they just don't know how they could be employed as an English.

But here's what you learn when you take Humanities classes: the power of narrative. I don't mean that you learn how to identify metaphors or define allegory (though you may learn those things), but that you learn how to analyze language to find what makes it tick. You learn that perspective matters. You do not need this knowledge just so that you can appreciate how Poe verbally renders the relentless walling-in of Fortunato at the end of "The Cask of Amontillado" by having Montressor count courses of brick, row by row, punctuated by Fortunato's screams. For while that story's end is dramatic and powerful, the lesson that one should take away is not merely that Poe sure could write a creepy story, but that stories are always told by the survivors. That perspective matters because books are written by victors. For if histories are told by those who have triumped, then it is vital to recall that these may in fact be unreliable narrators. Indeed, those triumphed over might tell quite another tale, if only they were not entombed alive behind walls of another's making.

Humanities courses teach us to step outside our own perspectives. They offer us critical theories that serve as new lenses for reading and open our minds to new voices. In analyzing literature, we learn to think about how narratives are constructed for particular effect and how to question the intentions behind those effects. We learn to be more savvy consumers of language that is designed to persuade as we ourselves become more proficient at both analysis and persuasion. In reading history, we come to think about the past not as a series of knowable facts, but as a tapestry woven from details into a story -- and we learn to ask who else might have taken those same filaments and woven them into a different picture.

A thorough grounding in Humanities subjects may not result in a job title, but it surely results in a better citizen of the world -- a person able to think critically and carefully, to assess situations from multiple perspectives, to deploy language as a powerful tool.

It is no accident that the greatest of politicians have also been great rhetoricians, able not merely to have good ideas and brilliant insights into what will make the future brighter, but also able to convey those ideas to people in a way that makes them hopeful rather than skeptical, in a way that makes them feel a part of something larger than themselves.

I watched the representatives from the Big Three auto companies struggle in their first hearing on Capitol Hill, and I knew what everyone knew: they failed because they didn't have a concrete plan. But I also knew what my colleagues knew: they failed because they didn't have a story. How much more powerful their pitch would have been had they told the story of the struggling Detroit worker, willing to retrain, retool, take a paycut, anything to make ends meet and keep his chin up, proud to be a third generation Ford man. They needed better numbers and less whining. They also needed a better narrative of what the demise of the giant manufacturing sector would mean not only for the man in Detroit, but for businesses all across the country that are initmately tied into this industry.

If any one of those guys sitting there had been an English major in college, he would have known that.

I'm not saying that everyone should run out and dump their "useful" majors in the Business school to become Philosophy or English majors. But I do think we need to take a good hard look at the idea of teaching skills rather than teaching to job titles. If "science and technology and math" (none of which are job titles, by the way) are good priorities to have, then so are "reading and writing."

Without the power of the pen (or keyboard), the brightest minds will find few receptive to their ideas. But, I tell my students, when they ask me "what you can do with an English major": with the power of the language in one's corner, the possibilities are endless.


LaskiGal said...

What a powerful post. One this English-degree-holding mama absolutely loves and appreciates.

When I was first asked what I would do with my English degree, I said, "Anything I want!" And I meant it. I had such inspiring English teachers and professors that it was natural for me to become a teacher.

I had stories to tell, to share. It is in the stories that the world comes alive, that life is lived. We are sorely missing that today.

Before I left teaching to stay home with J (yes, this mommy will go back to education eventually), several of our failing English students found a way to take English online. All they had to do was take a few rudimentary skills tests, read one basic level book and they were done. They actually bragged to other students about the lack of requirements. It pained me to see how much they were going to miss.

It isn't just about Beowulf, Shakespeare, dangling participles and thesis statements. English, along with many other liberal art studies, goes far, far beyond that.

Sadly, many will never know just how far . . .

Thank you for writing this.

CaJoh said...

To parallel that— I believe there are two different ways of thinking… Concrete and Conceptual. I think that those who learn by "the numbers" are concrete thinkers, and those that learn through stories are conceptual thinkers. So glad I love to hear and tell stories— it makes my life much more enriched.

MEP said...

Thanks for a fantastic post. I just defended a dissertation on female friendship and citizenship in nineteenth-century American literature. I am more convinced than ever that democracy thrives to the extent that its citizens engage in various kinds of narrative practice: critical reading, storytelling, listening, imagining, writing, and on and on.

We'd all be better off if parents and schools made raising readers a priority.

Again, thanks for a thoughtful and inspiring post.

Scribbit said...

There really is a need for students to learn to communicate effictively in whatever field they're studying. A good solid liberal arts education is a great thing even in business or engineering or medicine. No matter what your specialty you have to be able to communicate.

Anonymous said...

Absent in your commentary is the perspective that science can also develop "a person able to think critically and carefully, to assess situations from multiple perspectives, to deploy language as a powerful tool". Most "Liberal Arts" degrees are really "Liberal Arts and Sciences" degrees with the needed components to help provide balance and perspective. Rather than draw a line between "liberal arts (and sciences" and "vocational" focus, very real in higher ed these days, you are instead trying to draw a false dichotomy between humanities and the sciences in their treatment of critical thinking, communication (language) valuation, and development of the student as a thinker and not just a worker.

Trust me, most humanities (and science) faculty also draw the same distinctions you do. I think if we all looked more at similarities across our disciplines, we would be able to help develop these critical thinkers we all aspire to - especially when the budget crunches.

MommyTime said...

Anonymous (I wish I knew who you were), you may be surprised to hear this, but I agree with you completely. I am not interested in drawing hard distinctions between sciences and humanities in terms of what they teach or their methods. I am a huge fan of writing across the curriculum, and I strongly believe (as you do) that critical inquiry is a skill learned in many many disciplines.

My concern, rather, is with those who make policy or call for changes in education, who seem to make one-sided pleas for math, science and technology as the subjects that will save us, without considering the value of close analysis of language and deep skills in analytic reading and writing that are the traditional hallmark of humanities disciplines.

While certainly there are many skills that cross disciplines, unfortunately, most universities are set up in ways that hinder, rather than promote, the kinds of cross-disciplinary considerations you suggest. Furthermore, it would be difficult to deny, I think, that while critical inquiry is certainly an important part of physics or chemistry, for example, the sustained study of the power of language in itself really is what English departments do. I am not at all advocating rejecting the sciences half of "Arts and Sciences" but rather suggesting that it is extremely important that we, in our concerns about U.S. students falling behind in math/science/technology, ought not swing the other way and ignore the value of humanities.

MamaGeek @ Works For Us said...

This? Powerful, passionate and provoking.

Mike Marshall said...

Many years ago, I took a series of tests at a local community college to determine what my "major" would be. The answer was English. I laughed and thought what could I do with that? I did nothing. Perhaps it was a mistake.......Peace, Mike.

tara said...

This chemistry prof agrees that a good healthy dose of english & philosophy classes & majors would be a good thing.

Fawn said...

A timely post in my world. I studied business because it was practical, not because I loved it. No one forced me, but I thought I should be realistic about jobs. I don't regret studying business, but I wonder if my work life would be more interesting if I'd actually followed my passion, instead, and studied music or English. The stuff I *didn't* go for, because hey, what are you going to do with an English degree?

I am Barking Mad said...

This is an amazingly powerful post!

Not only do you see this in the lack of humanities and liberal arts degrees but it's so very evident in today's popular writing. There are "books" being published by the thousands but there are no "novels" if that makes sense. Easy reads fly off the shelves at a rate of noughts and it's quite sad.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the Twilight series, but despite the wealth Meyer's has accumulated because of her beloved vampires, the woman could not write her way out of a paper bag to save her life. I applaud the fact that she is getting tweens and teens to read more, but a lot like Rowling, she's NOT a great writer.

I really think, and this is just my opinion, to be a truly great writer, you need to be a great reader. People don't want to be great readers any more. They want a fast read that gratifies them now!

My daughter Meg is attending a small liberal arts college here in Maine, yet she's going for a business degree. In her firsts semester she was already loaded with major-specific classes. Not one of her classes was English or literature, or remotely related to teaching her the things that used to encompass a traditional degree. I fear that she may indeed end up with a Business Degree, but she won't have a clue how to write an essay, to save her life.

Sorry for the rant!

Auds at Barking Mad


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