April 28, 2010

English as a way of understanding the world


Listened to my weekly Slate Culture Gabfest (which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys intelligent somewhat elitist but good fun discussions) One of the hosts, Stephen Metcalf, mentioned William Chace, a respected University Professor of English literature, and a paper he wrote in The American Scholar. So I looked it up. And here I am. Chace puts into words what I was not able to express quite as eloquently why I am doing what I do (studying English&American Literature while writing.....you know......books): because I love books. I love words. I love writing. I love history. I love knowledge. I love the understanding. It all fits together. There are no answers. There is, simply, the opportunity to learn. And that's awesome.

It seemed like the normal thing to do; studying English. It was the oasis I'd been inadvertently searching for since I got here.

I live abroad ie not in an English-speaking country, I just yearned for the language. My language. I love the English language. I love it with a passion.

You know what else is fascinating? Literature, history, culture, politics: its all interconnected. History is my minor and one of my classes is History of Political Thinking. Utopias/Dystopias is one of my literature classes. I did a presentation on Sir Thomas More's Utopia. During today's history of political thinking class, the professor named the top ten most influential political works of the early modern period. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Sir Thomas More's Utopia. What I learn in one class helps me in another class. That's what I call efficiency. I could just bathe in the awesomeness of it all. Seriously. Everyday I sit there in wonderment... and also frustration at the amount of time I'd need to spend deeply darkly understanding it all.

Of course, and that's what William Chace's article deals with, one has to be able to earn money. Given the slightly depressing global economy, studying any of the humanities is becoming more of a luxury. The tendency to go for a profession that provides a life of luxury (or, at the very least, mild snobbish gratification) has been on the increase for decades. No financial glory being a university professor of English lit let alone a middle school teacher.

See, and that's one reason our world is a little bit screwed up: beauty of the brain, love for words is worth less. Wouldn't it be nice to experience a dawning of a new renaissance of the 21st century? Where its cool to know things?

"Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.
Finding pleasure in such reading, and indeed in majoring in English, was a declaration at the time that education was not at all about getting a job or securing one’s future."

Excerpts from The Decline of the English Department by William Chace.
William M. Chace has taught at Berkeley, Stanford, Wesleyan, and Emory, and served as president of the last two. He is the author of 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way.

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