Newman: On necessities, luxuries and labor in the humanities

Barbara Newman, Op-Ed Contributor, English professor

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You love your lit courses — you know you do. Perhaps Dickens was your favorite: You could almost feel the London fog swirling into your lungs. Or how about that wild and crazy Chaucer class where you acted out “The Miller’s Tale”?

But major in English? No, you promised your parents to choose something practical, like economics. Or after surviving organic chemistry, you might as well finish your pre-med curriculum. Everyone knows the humanities are just for fun anyway.

We English professors are forever trying to persuade students — and parents — that you can do more with a literature degree than mix lattés at Starbucks while informing customers that it’s named after Captain Ahab’s first mate in “Moby-Dick.” That reminds me of author Bill Bryson’s tale about an old College Bowl match between Brits and Americans. After the Brits had won by about 12,000 to two, he wondered what became of the participants — and figured the Americans were pulling in $850,000 a year as bond traders, while the Brits were writing about the tonality of 16th-century choral music in Lower Silesia and wearing ratty sweaters.

If there’s a whiff of luxury about the humanities, it’s not the wealth but the pleasure they afford. Suppose Evanston’s garbage collectors went on strike for a week: Everyone would know it. If all poets went on strike for a year, no one would know it. So in a world of utopian economics, garbage collectors would earn more than professors. Their work is smelly, exhausting and necessary; ours is privileged and optional. Yet though the world would be a better place without garbage, without poetry, it would be impoverished. Defenders of the humanities are always trapped in this bind. Any single endeavor may seem trivial, yet without the humanities as such, we would have only trivia.

True, it would be a dull conscience that never worried about spending our best thought on art and music, poetry and fiction, while there are starving people to feed and endangered species to save. In violent times, these scruples become even more pressing. Compared to the dramatic urgency of war, the pursuits of peacetime seem idle. That is why, 60 years ago, “War and Peace” was judged a great novel and “Pride and Prejudice” a mere domestic fiction. Yet, just as we now think differently about Austen, we need to rethink our broader suspicions.

Two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, my husband and I had planned to attend an academic conference. We first thought it would be canceled — but it wasn’t, although planes were grounded. Our second thought was to cancel ourselves — but why, after all? So off we drove, joining a small, shaken band of medievalists to learn about the Greek manuscripts Theodore of Tarsus brought from Byzantium to Canterbury in the seventh century. It all seemed extraordinarily remote, yet I found myself revisiting all our clichés about the “Dark Ages.” Whatever may have been dark in the medieval past, it was not Theodore’s monks struggling with Greek grammar. No, what was dark then is dark today — how much does it really matter if we kill with arrows or airplanes? About as much as it matters whether we write on parchment or screens. Our technologies enable us to do much more, much faster — but it’s the ends that count, not the means. If it’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, I would sooner praise the monk copying declensions by a flickering tallow stub than the commander deploying drones by remote control.

One of the most insidious evils of violence is that it makes us think only violence matters. One gift of the humanities is to defy that law. Even after the next 1,000 pointless deaths, people will still care about Greek verbs and Silesian music, Captain Ahab’s quest and Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage. The historian Johan Huizinga once remarked that all culture is a form of play, and in the humanities, we find as perfect a fusion of work and play as in sports. My study of medieval literature may never give as much joy as a Cubs championship, but it gives the same kind of joy: no less a luxury, no less a necessity. And if I make more money than garbage collectors but less than the Cubs, so be it. Life is short; utopian economics will have to wait.

Barbara Newman is an English professor. She can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.