Why I'm not afraid of Virginia Woolf – or the 'crisis' in the humanities

A changing economy is precisely why we need young people educated in the humanities. These disciplines teach us to question – and better – the world around us. The crisis is not with the humanities. The crisis is with the failure to value them enough.

Richard Drew/AP/File
President Obama delivers the commencement address to graduates at all-female Barnard College, on the campus of Columbia University in New York May 14. Op-ed contributor Anne E. Fernald writes: ' Whatever crises higher education faces – and they are many – we will be better armed to face them if we remember why we value the humanities in the first place.'

I have been hearing about the so-called crisis in the humanities since I first considered going to graduate school to become a professor back in the late 1980s. Now, more than 25 years later, I barely earn what I could have made as a management trainee back then. And yet, the only time I doubt the value of what I do is when I read yet another op-ed identifying a crisis in the humanities.

There are many deeply troubling things going on in higher education today. College education costs too much. Student loan debt cripples young people's choices and hopes. Private education is increasingly out of the reach of the vanishing middle class. Meanwhile, public education has been gutted by state legislatures. Experiments with online and for-profit higher education have not delivered on initial hopes.

University administrators have grown in number, and their corporate-size salaries dwarf what faculty members make. At the same time, universities have grown increasingly reliant on contingent faculty members, highly educated adjuncts making less than a living wage. The picture is not pretty. Reform is urgently needed.

But none of this detracts from the value of the humanities. The humanities teach us about our common past, our struggles, and our achievements. Studying the humanities nurtures critical thinking and mental flexibility, which are essential skills, especially in this moment of economic uncertainty.

In fact, a large part of why we need to reform higher education derives from the value of the humanities, a value that remains undiminished in spite of the many threats humanities education faces from the outside. Whatever crises higher education faces – and they are many – we will be better armed to face them if we remember why we value the humanities in the first place.

Training and the art of patience

In my field, English literature, my daily work as a teacher and scholar ranges from the highly esoteric to the ordinary, but every bit of it requires me to listen, think critically, form an opinion, and then express it within the context of the conversation – be that with a colleague or a student, in speech or in writing. Every bit of this work has value, and none of it is particularly marked by crisis.

For the past decade, I have been at work on a scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel "Mrs. Dalloway." This meant comparing British and American versions of the novel, combing through letters and diaries to compile the history of how she came to write it, and writing footnotes, lots of footnotes. This work has been alternately painstaking and exhilarating. I had to slow my reading down to a glacial pace and train myself to listen to what I call the dog whistle of a possible allusion. That very slow reading, reading as listening, led me to notice some very surprising things, including allusions to the biblical book of Ruth and "The Odyssey" that scholars had not noticed before.

These are thrilling discoveries: To find that a great novel such as Woolf's contains an even deeper level of artistry and care than has heretofore been detected is to bear witness, once again, to the power of art. Such discoveries are rare. They depend on patience and training.

Helping them to help themselves

Far more common are the hours I spend reading student papers, trying not only to untangle my students' prose, but to show them precisely where their thinking has become vague and ungrammatical. My job is not only to correct my students' work, but to teach them to recognize their errors and correct them themselves.

Part of that means teaching young people to care about the details. As I get to know my students, I learn their strengths and weaknesses. I coax the shy but gifted student to speak up; I challenge the solid B student to take a risk. As the semester unfolds, I learn the difference between a poor paper that comes from confusion and struggle and a poor paper that was slapped together at the last minute; knowing that, I can adjust how I urge the author to a better paper next time. This, too, depends on patience and training. It also depends on my having an office from which to work and classes small enough for me to get to know my students.

On any given day, I might teach undergraduates how to spot an allusion in a poem, and tease out how it deepens the poem's meaning; speak with a colleague about an upcoming lecture; teach a roomful of beginning teachers how to plan their first syllabus; help an adjunct file a plagiarism report; write a letter of recommendation for a student planning to spend a semester studying abroad; and discuss possible revisions of a paper with an international student still mastering English. The long-term outcome of any one of these actions is impossible to know, but I know that each has value.

Why we dearly need humanities grads

I have former students working in marketing, social work, technology, and medicine. I have former students working as lawyers, librarians, and publicists. Humanities graduates are all around us. They are the colleagues we all turn to when we want to build consensus, write something clear and compelling, pitch a new idea, or deliver difficult news delicately.

I do fear for our future. The economic crisis, especially increasing income inequality, means that college graduates can no longer plan to graduate into a secure middle-class job. And yet, this is precisely why we need young people educated in the humanities. We need people to work for a brighter future. The humanities teach us about ourselves and our relationships to each other. They teach us the many mistakes we have made and the strategies we have found for solving our problems. The humanities train us to question the world we live in, to refuse to accept the injustices around us, and to communicate with our fellow citizens about the changes we want to see.

The crisis is not with the humanities. The crisis is with the failure to value them enough.

Anne E. Fernald is associate professor of English at Fordham University as well as director of writing and composition at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus. She is the author of "Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader" (Palgrave 2006) and the editor of a forthcoming textual edition of "Mrs. Dalloway" (Cambridge University Press).

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