I’ve just stumbled across yet another depressing article about the bleak future of the English Major. They usually go something like this: People are reading less, it’s terrible, woe to we who write! I read these types of articles because they are posted in literary magazines, by and for people concerned with the decline of reading and literature. But I believe articles of this ilk may be missing the point.
However well-intended and meticulously researched, the journalistic approach of this type of article lacks the essence of the discipline they are discussing. Literature and the arts are not about facts and figures, they are about what it means to be human, hence the label: the Humanities. Literature seeks to expose the truths of human existence, the shared experience, the feeling of being alive. So, in my first post for Newfound, I find myself looking for my place in all this cognitive shifting sand.
Doomsayers typically predict the downfall of the humanities by college enrollments and declared majors. There are more people studying business, medicine, and accounting, they may say. English departments are downsizing due to decreased interest. There are several problems with this argument, but let’s examine the most glaring fallacies. First, people study the subjects they think will get them jobs, e.g., business and medicine. Yet, in a bad economy, there are fewer jobs for everyone regardless of one’s area of expertise. The fact that one studies humanities does not decrease employment opportunities; the economy does that. Second, people don’t necessarily need a university education to succeed in fields such as literature, art and music. Using college majors to determine success seems unfair when you are comparing brain surgeons to painters; it’s apples and oranges.
Those bemoaning the downfall of literature often state that people are reading less—at least for fun. I would counter that people are reading more. When people spend more time staring at their phones than actually talking to people in real life, they are in fact reading. And although a tweet isn’t the same as a novel, perhaps their Twitter feed will read like one. By scrolling through someone’s Facebook, you can read the story of a person’s life, or at least the parts they share. Perhaps it isn’t highbrow literature, but you have to admit it is raw humanity. And it’s fun.
But if everyone is online, then should we study communication or marketing? Often this is the suggestion from these articles. However, these fields teach people to spin, how to be perceived, to control what is admitted. They hide the truth behind created fictions. Writing for corporate communication, marketing and advertising are very different than humanities writing. Literature seeks to reveal the truth through fiction, to show more than what one usually perceives. There is a reach to provide the reader with an experience, not just an opinion.
Articles concerned with the decline in recreational reading generally mention benefits of reading, such as increased focus and imagination. They will discuss how reading can improve attention spans and promote empathy. This seems to be a turn, but often is no more than a pause to tease the literary reader that what they do might be worthwhile. If only the articles stopped there.
Instead, they usually conclude with more saddening news, such as this statement by Sarah Schwister in Quail Bell Magazine: “Americans are still turning away from serious fiction, and sadly the literary novel may wind up mostly forgotten, like poetry.” Statements such as this one make me furious, and cause me to wonder at the writer’s intent. In my outrage, I find my place, the solid ground on which I stand.
Poetry is not forgotten, not even somewhat forgotten. Not only is poetry still alive in its own right, but poetry is at the heart of every well-turned phrase, every novel surely, but also the clever meme or funny anecdote. The disturbing thing here is that people in the field, the writers who pen such articles, have already given up on poetry as a form of expression. They have bought into the idea of an America that is turning away from words.
Society does not determine whether the humanities live or die. We do, we that live in the world of the humanities. Some of us work hard every day to promote reading and arts, cultural values and societal change. What is true and always has been is that the hearts and minds of a society’s poets and artists determine its direction, functioning as its moral center. Sure, we are finding new forms of expression, but that does not mean we have to kill off the existing ones. Perhaps multimedia is the future for the humanities, but that does not preclude the writing of books, or even poetry.
It is the artist who makes the difference. Let us not look at the world and have it tell us what will and will not be. Instead, let us look and tell the world what might be. And let that expression take any form. The future is as bright as we paint it. Let us not give up on ourselves just yet.
Reggie Carlisle finished his BA in Creative Writing at Weber State University in 2014. His first published story was in the Fall 2013 Mixitini Matrix. He currently resides in Utah with his wife and five daughters.