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The Well Wrought–Whatever

with 5 comments

Actually, it’s The Well Wrought Urn, and it’s the title of a book by Cleanth Brooks

All I can say is that it fit something deep inside my head today, which is as good an explanation as you’re ever going to get from me.  I have it–the book, that is–along with F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition, on my coffee table.  The Great Tradition is about three of the four English novelists Leavis thought were “great.”  He left out Jane Austen, because he thought she was the greatest, and would take an entire book to explain.  The other three are Hardy, Eliot and James–and James is an American.

This is the kill week, so let me just make a few notes before I get shot out of a canon.

First, Robert says I wouldn’t consider a Ph.D. in biochemistry “educated”–but he’s wrong.

Biology and chemistry are part of the liberal arts.  Given the kind of broad distribution program that was common at any good university before, say, 1975, I would expect a Ph.D. in biochemistry to be fairly solidly educated.   He’d be heavy on the hard sciences and math and lighter on history, philosophy and literature, but he’d still be well educated.

Of course, a PhD in biochemistry who knew nothing at all about the broad scope of the Humanities and social sciences wouldn’t be well-educated–but neither would a Literature or Philosophy major who knew nothing of science or mathematics.

A liberal arts education requires some knowledge of all these things, not just the Humanities, and not just the Sciences.

The kind of person I would not consider educated–given the way the programs I’m familiar with are usually run–is the one with a “degree” in “Resort and Leisure Management”  or “Sports Journalism.”

These are vocational courses meant to fit a student narrowly for some practical career, not foundational areas of knowledge that can be pursued for their own sake.  Neither are they areas of knowledge foundational to the enterprise of Western Civilization across the millennia.

But biologyand chemistry?  The Medieval scholars called them “natural philosophy” and included them in the Liberal Arts from the beginning.

Second, I require no deference from anybody, but I am automatically suspicious of any person who demands that he be told what you can “do” with knowledge. 

I believe very strongly in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake–that it is valuable to know just to know, because you want to know and understand, even if it won’t make you a dime or put you on a career path to “success” or any of the rest of it.

And here I’m with ab–there is very little understanding of or respect for the enterprise of learning just because you want to learn in the US.

The issue isn’t “deference” to the opinons of people with PhDs, but the sneering demand to know “what it’s GOOD for!” when you tell somebody you’re studying Renaissance atchitecture or the history of the concept of evil from Greece to Aquinas.

Everybody here has their own bogeymen, but mine are definitely composed of the echoes of endless contempt when somebody from my childhood–other children, certainly, but also quite a few adults–found me reading Aristotle or Henry James. 

“That’s STUPID,” they’d say.  “What’s it GOOD for?”

And a lifetime of listening to that particular kind of crap explains why, even though I sometimes agree more on policy with some Republicans than I do with most Democrats, I never do vote Republican.

Third, for ab’s information–English was the most popular major in my college in the year I graduated, and of the members of my class who majored in English with me, I know of not one who has ever taught a day in a public high school.

For one thing, you can’t go teach in public schools with a degree in English.  You have to get at the least a further degree in education, and the schools in most states prefer education degrees “with an English focus” rather than straight English degrees.

For what it’s worth–English majors tend to go to law school.  All the way to the year 2000, English was the most common college major of first years entering prestige American law schools (Yale, Harvard, etc).

The second most likely path after graduation is publishing–all those huge publishing houses like Random House and Simon and Schuster, all those magazines and high-end newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are largely staffed by English majors.  The highest end newspapers won’t even look at resumes from people with “journalism” majors, although they’ll talk to English majors from “good” schools who go on to a Master’s at Columbia Journalism.

The third most common career path was, and I don’t know why, the intelligence agencies and the foreign service.  There was a while there when the CIA seemed to be staffed by nothing but English majors from Yale. 

I don’t know what the history majors did, but my guess is that the categories were similar. 

And I don’t know where things are now.  But looking at my quarterly alumni magazine, they seem to me to be similar, and I can still count on the Vassar Girl connection to get me free books from any publisher in town.

We seem to be wandering back to the LAE thing all on our own.

But right now, I’ve got to go do stuff.

Written by janeh

December 12th, 2011 at 9:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The Well Wrought–Whatever'

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  1. My mistake. But I believe my original comment would stand if I substituted “electrical engineering” for “biochemistry?” It still seems to me to be an odd place to draw the line.

    [Me? On one side are those fields–Sociology, Ethics, Political Science, arts criticism–in which the most important thing is to stay on the good side of the professor. On the other side are those in which the important thing is an unforgiving reality, because the professor’s recommendation will not help you if the bridge collapses or the chemical compound does not behave as predicted. History–including literary history–is betwixt and between. I’d have to agree that “Resort Management” and “Sports Journalism” don’t sound like real degrees to me–but then neither does Political Science.)

    My family was anxious that I be able to “earn a decent living” at the end of my education, which seemed to me a reasonable concern. (It’s the Nurse Ratchedy cries of “I’m doing it for your own good because I know better” from various authority figures but especially those in Education which keeps me on the Republican straight and narrow, by the way. I made an exception for Obama, and look what that got me.)

    Last I heard, the analysis side of the CIA was still very HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton.] I failed the Foreign Service English exam, so any comment on them could be sour grapes.

    Very strange. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who scorned the pursuit of knowledge as such. I’ve met a lot of people who felt you should be qualified for a career first, and a good few who didn’t think a BA in English Lit was a suitable prerequisite for a career in Artillery Branch, but that’s not the same thing.

    When you’re shot out of the cannon, be sure to have both feet planted firmly. Likely to be hip trouble otherwise.


    12 Dec 11 at 6:29 pm

  2. I hesitate to post a link to a Kipling poem, but I think “The Sons Of Martha” may apply here.


    Engineers are definitely sons of Martha. Perhaps English majors and professors of Education should be considered sons of Mary?


    12 Dec 11 at 7:31 pm

  3. Whereabouts I live, I know of several states that don’t require an education degree to teach English. In fact, judging from some of the teachers I had, an English degree is optional, or at least used to be. Maybe some of them were grandmothered in. Hell, I had some teachers (not English) who couldn’t possibly have finished high school, because they would have had to graduate before NCLB made graduation automatic.


    12 Dec 11 at 7:32 pm

  4. What gain for Mary’s idle ears?
    No virtue, is sloth, and Mary but a churl
    And know ye this of engineers
    The hand that builds the cradle rules the world.


    12 Dec 11 at 7:47 pm

  5. In Pennsylvania, at least, you have to have a dual major in Education and the subject you want to teach in order to be certified at the secondary level.

    And I really don’t spend any time at all with people who don’t value learning for learning’s sake. Life’s too short. Hell, even my dog likes learning new things.

    Cathy F


    12 Dec 11 at 8:46 pm

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