Paul Prather

Urge your kid to major in English or history. God bless the humanities.

Columnist Paul Prather writes: “There are few things more practical than a degree in English literature. Or art. Or philosophy. Or history.”
Columnist Paul Prather writes: “There are few things more practical than a degree in English literature. Or art. Or philosophy. Or history.” Getty Images

I’ve certainly made my share of bad choices.

But here are two good choices: my decisions to major in English literature as an undergraduate, and afterward to earn a master’s in English, too.

I’m a proselytizer for the humanities.

I hear there aren’t many of us poets and free thinkers left on campuses today.

In 1967, one in five college undergraduates majored in the liberal arts (which overlap with the humanities, although they’re not exactly the same things). That number has fallen to one in 20, says The Hechinger Report, which covers education issues.

And the trend lately has accelerated. Universities are slashing time-honored humanities programs to save money. Here and there, entire liberal arts colleges have shuttered their ivy-covered doors.

STEM education — science, technology, engineering, math — is the rage. Whether or not they choose STEM subjects, students now are all but commanded by their elders and counselors to study something “practical,” such as computer science or nursing.

But I’d argue there are few things more practical than a degree in English literature. Or art. Or philosophy. Or history.

On average, graduates from the humanities eventually earn salaries almost equal to those of graduates in trendier fields, the statistics how.

More to the point, an education should be about a lot more than money. Education should also prepare students to become self-aware adults and good neighbors and informed citizens.

That’s where the humanities excel.

Not that I’m personally self-aware or a good neighbor or an informed citizen. But studying English literature and composition did open an entirely new universe to me.

I’d spent my upbringing in small town and rural Kentucky, which I loved then and love today. However, prior to attending the University of Kentucky as a non-traditional student in my mid-20s, my most profound musings centered around what I was likely to have for supper on a given evening.

In the humanities, I encountered actual ideas. Big ideas. Historic ideas. Even cosmic ideas. I thought thoughts I never would have thought on my own.

I encountered poetry and plays and novels and timeless moral quandaries. I encountered Chaucer and Shakespeare and Donne and Keats and Twain and Welty.

I was taught by meticulous, conscientious professors who expected me to explain what I’d read and defend my explanations, right down to the individual words I employed, because words have meanings and those meanings aren’t trifles.

Why did you use that verb? a professor might scribble in the margin of my term paper. Why not this verb?

I was predisposed to be intellectually lazy, but they wouldn’t let me.

They made me work. They exposed my blind spots. They suggested other interpretations of texts and events I assumed I already understood.

Education isn’t merely the memorizing of facts — that the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 or the ulna is one of two bones in the forearm. Yes, facts are essential. You can’t make up reality as you go along.

But it’s more important to learn to evaluate facts critically. You need to know how to organize your facts once you’ve got them, and how your facts relate to the facts compiled by all manner of other people over the ages — and why any of it matters. You’ve got to be able to express your conclusions in clear, accurate language.

That’s what the humanities are about.

Reading and analyzing great literature also helped me recognize that people forever had been asking the same questions and experiencing the same heartbreaks and rejoicing at the same triumphs, across centuries and across cultures. They’d all wanted to know why they were here and where they were going.

I read an essay recently about the decline in funding for the liberal arts (which, as I mentioned, overlap with the humanities). The essay said some people now are dubious of the liberal arts because they’re suspicious of both “liberal” and “arts.”

Apparently these naysayers fear such programs brainwash innocent freshmen into becoming touchy feely snowflakes who deny God and smoke clove cigarettes and hang out at poetry slams.

But there was never a time as a student when I felt my faith — religious or otherwise — was under assault. Professors and fellow students rarely belittled my beliefs; however, did they expect me to know why I believed what I did and defend it intelligently. That was helpful. It made me search myself, and doubt, and re-evaluate, as anyone should.

I entered my English studies as a Christian. I emerged as a Christian with two degrees in English from a state university.

I’ve now spent much of my professional life teaching the Bible and preaching.

I’m told my lessons and sermons are insightful and accessible and usually engaging whether you’re a 10th-grader or a Ph.D.

If that’s so, and I hope it is, it’s more the result of what I learned from my allegedly heathen English professors than from my Sunday school teachers.

Thank God for the humanities.