In the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg Gets It Wrong

Verlyn Klinkenborg has written an op ed called The Decline and Fall of the English Major in which he starts with his students' inability to write and winds up discerning a "literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities". The apparent goal of the article is to defend the value of the humanities. However, the editorial has two weaknesses that undermine that goal.

The first weakness arises in the attempt to define that value. The author reduces what the humanities offer to mere writing— to clear composition. "They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing," explains Klinkenborg, who also asserts that undergrads do not know "how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature."

So the value proposition of the humanities is reducible to clear thinking, clear writing, and a literary hobby. If that's all the humanities can offer, then why not eliminate every humanistic discipline other than composition and informal logic?

The humanities must be defended, if at all, on a much broader and deeper basis than this. To defend them merely because they build communication skills is to provide a tacit argument for superseding them with more efficient means toward that goal.

This fault in the editorial is joined to another. Klinkenborg writes: "…a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities… suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring…. Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply."

Whether these are genuine faults or merely perceived ones hardly matters in view of one overriding concern: if the humanities are so excellent at developing clear thought and clear verbal expression, then why do "the humanities… do a bad job of explaining" their value, and why do "the humanities… do a bad job of teaching the humanities"?

It seems reasonable that if the value proposition of the humanities consists of "clear thought and expression", then explaining the value of, and teaching, the humanities should be a slam dunk (and should be perceived as such). But if "the humanities" do a poor job of explaining their value and communicating their methods, then why believe in the first place that effective communication is a likely outcome of humanistic education?

Note– I'm all in favor of the humanities. Because of my humanistic education, I look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions. For this reason, I don't like to see the humanities defended by a reduction to "clear thinking and writing" on the one hand and, on the other, by a contradiction of their efficacy at precisely that juncture.

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