The sun was shining and a light breeze was blowing on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota on Friday, when the university president and Board of Regents rolled out a new capital campaign of $4 billion: $1 billion for student investment, $2 billion for faculty and research (at which the university excels internationally), and $1 billion for “initiatives and outreach.” The speeches were strong and short, and the Gopher band was in tune as it played a “rousing” “Minnesota Rouser.”
Just before this public announcement, the University of Minnesota Foundation made a highly professional presentation to the Board of Regents with a video that highlighted the university’s strengths: agriculture, health sciences, research, leadership training and diversity of students. The video finished with a cascade of photos of lauded current and former U stars.
Unfortunately, in the presentation, the video and the speeches one major area was never mentioned: the humanities.
We live in a culture that values technology and science above all, but we work in a world of words and ideas first. English is our first language. Literature, philosophy, history, theater, rhetoric and communication provide us with the tools to take part in modern life, to make and change careers, to support our families and make a contribution to our communities.
And yet, degrees in English and the humanities are a tough sell as tuition rises and families struggle to find ways to support their students. In response, we have been exploring how both English majors and their employers have found their study of English useful in the postcollege career world.
To that end, we have collected testimonials from many people that demonstrate that an English degree will be a strong asset in making a living. The following excerpts illustrate this fact.
An entrepreneur who started a Fortune 500 company writes: “Over my life I have noticed English majors doing excellent work as communications systems specialists, telecommunications experts and even vacuum cleaner repair!” A training specialist with a large corporation testifies: “Presentations came easy because I knew how to research my topic and present it coherently and effectively.” Another English major became a new-car salesman: “My father asked me how I use my high priced college degree. I tell him that, as an English major, I was taught to read, interpret, and feed back. Those skills have resulted in a successful sales career.” A writer stated that his first job interview was for a management position. He was embarrassed to say that he had no business courses. The president shook his head: “You can learn business here. What I want to know is: Can you think? Can you communicate? Can you analyze?”
So relax! English and the humanities can help you earn a living in many ways. But there are two even more crucial reasons for highlighting their importance in our current world.
First, the importance to individuals: Currently, the value of learning to speak well, to think in logical terms, to be able to understand common references to cultures all over the world are under siege by the inundation of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts and news. How can the public sort through this cacophony of noise and distraction and ask the hard questions about “news” feeds regarding source and logic that a democracy requires? Education can train us to respond to this noise as intelligent users, not robotoids.
Second, the importance to the republic: We have only to look east to Washington to see a Congress immobilized by its own inability to present ideas, debate them and pass legislation that deals with the people’s business to understand how our education system has failed us as citizens and voters. An educated public is the only defense against political self-immolation.
The university, from the Latin universitas, was originally “a corporation of teachers and students, formed for the purpose of giving and receiving instruction,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us. The basic instruction that will support a democracy must be in language and thought. Any university that ignores this is in peril of becoming only a training center. And its students, as voters, will deliver a government that reflects the lack of training in logic, speech and communications.
The U needs to designate Pillsbury Hall as a Center for the Humanities with the English department as its anchor. The capital campaign must underscore the need for education in English, history and philosophy, as well as agriculture, science and technology, as a core value in the idea of the university. Without it, democracy — already doddering under current assaults — may not survive.
Judith K. Healey, a novelist and biographer, is a graduate of both the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts and the College of Human Development. She is a member of the advisory board to the U’s English Department and of the Pillsbury Hall Committee.