WASHINGTON — By the time I took off my mortarboard two weeks ago, my degree in English literature was de trop. Instead of a Master of Arts, I should have gotten a Master of Algorithms.
As I was pushing the rock up a hill, mastering Donne, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce and Mary Shelley, I failed to notice that the humanities had fallen off the cliff.
It was as if the bottle of great wine I saved to celebrate my degree was bouchonné.
The New Yorker ran an obit declaring “The End of the English Major.” One English professor flatly told Nathan Heller, the writer of the 10,000-plus-word magazine piece, that “the Age of Anglophilia is over.”
The Harvard English department handed out tote bags with slogans like “Currently reading” and dropped its poetry requirement for an English degree. But it was too late for such pandering. Students were fleeing to the hotter fields of tech and science.
“Assigning ‘Middlemarch’ in that climate was like trying to land a 747 on a small rural airstrip,” Heller wrote.
Trustees at Marymount University in Virginia voted unanimously in February to phase out majors such as English, history, art, philosophy and sociology.
How can students focus on slowly unspooling novels when they have disappeared inside the kinetic world of their phones, lured by wacky videos and filtered FOMO photos? Why should they delve into hermeneutics and epistemology when they can simply exchange flippant, shorthand tweets and texts?
In a world where brevity is the soul of social media, what practical use can come from all that voluminous, ponderous reading? Would braving “Ulysses” help you pay the rent the way coding could?
I wish I could adopt the attitude of Drew Lichtenberg, who has taught theater history at Catholic and Yale Universities. “We should hail the return of the arts and humanities to bohemian weirdos,” he said. “It began as something for which there were no career opportunities or money to be made, and thence it will return. Like Gertrude Stein’s circle in the Jazz Age. Or like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and the Symbolist poets in the fin de siècle.”
Strangely enough, the humanities are faltering just at the moment when we’ve never needed them more.
Americans are starting to wrestle with colossal and dangerous issues about technology, as A.I. begins to take over the world. And we could use an army of thoughtful English majors to help sort it out.
“There is no time in our history in which the humanities, philosophy, ethics and art are more urgently necessary than in this time of technology’s triumph,” said Leon Wieseltier, the editor of Liberties, a humanistic journal. “Because we need to be able to think in nontechnological terms if we’re going to figure out the good and the evil in all the technological innovations. Given society’s craven worship of technology, are we going to trust the engineers and the capitalists to tell us what is right and wrong?”
It is not only the humanities that are passé. It’s humanity itself.
We are at the mercy of lords of the cloud, high on their own supply, who fancy themselves as gods creating life. Despite some earnest talk of regulation, they have no interest in installing a kill switch. A.I. is their baby, hurtling toward the rebellious teenage years.
Is this really the moment for lit departments to make “Frankenstein” and “Paradise Lost” obsolete?
Elon Musk said his friendship with Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, fractured when Musk pressed his case about the dangers of A.I. and Page accused him of being a speciesist who favored humans.
A.I. can be amazing; it just discovered an antibiotic that kills a deadly superbug. But it may also eventually see us as superbugs.
We can’t deal with artificial intelligence unless we cultivate and educate the non-artificial intelligence that we already possess.
It is not only the humanities and humanity that are endangered species. Our humaneness has shriveled. The dueling Republican clinchpoops, Trump and Ron DeSantis, are nasty and pitiless, “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” as Oscar Wilde described fox hunting.
Republicans have consecrated themselves to a war against qualities once cherished by many Americans. Higher principles — dignity, civility, patience, respect, tolerance, goodness, sympathy and empathy — are eclipsed.
Without humanities, humanity and humaneness, we won’t be imbuing society with wisdom, just creating owner’s manuals. That would be a floccinaucinihilipilification.