by Judith Collins
Dr. Collins wrote this essay for presentation at a meeting of The Informal Club of Transylvania University on January 12, 2021. She has revised it only slightly since then, cutting specific references to previous presenters and presentations within that group but retaining the informal tone appropriate to The Informal Club. She also adheres firmly to the belief that informality precludes neither seriousness nor accuracy.
I remember distinctly a scene in a classroom in a building once called Haupt Humanities, on the campus of Transylvania University. About a dozen English majors were busily hefting massive copies of The Riverside Shakespeare onto desks and shuffling in backpacks for pencils and notebooks, when Dr. Tay N. Fizdale walked into the room holding up the latest issue of the student newspaper, The Rambler, whose headline read something along the lines of: “Transy Voted Business of the Year by Lexington Chamber of Commerce.” Dr. Fizdale then explained that since Transy was “no longer a university but a business,” the English Department would now be called “the Department of Literary and Critical Services” and we should henceforth call him “Mr. Goodprof.” We all snickered, albeit uneasily, and a few of us may have grunted a little in shared cynicism over the state of commercialized education, without really understanding all the implications Dr. Fizdale understood.
He had probably long feared exactly what many of us who teach old-fashioned college subjects (English, history, philosophy, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) have since watched become reality. At the time, the idea that universities could see themselves as businesses seemed a bit ridiculous to us, and Dr. Fizdale meant for it to, and yet ridiculous has never been the same as impossible. Thus, I replay that scene in my head at the start of every semester, when I write the following into all my general education syllabi:
It’s true that you pay for enrollment in my course, but I am not a service provider; I am a university professor. You are not a client; you are a student. Perhaps a better way to put it is that you are not so much the customer buying a product as the product itself. I take pride in my work, and I will not allow a shoddy product to pass inspection. You pay a part of your tuition for the privilege of learning some of what I know about literature, which is, in fact, worth knowing. How well you learn it, as well as the grade you earn for showing what you learn, is at least 50% your responsibility.
I have to include that passage because I have discovered that, by and large, students consider all general education classes as pointless stepping-stones to degrees in fields that will allegedly train them for “good” jobs (i.e.: high-paying ones). This fairly widely accepted attitude has had the consequence of making them feel that paying for their education means they are entitled to a job, which of course means they are first entitled to a diploma, which of course means they are entitled to pass all the classes they pay for. The concept of learning something, especially in gen ed classes, is too often an afterthought, at best.
Thus, I’m now certain that Dr. Fizdale also foresaw the eventual ruination of English departments – a world (or at least, a nation) in which education was commodified to the extent that even some small liberal arts colleges, like the one where I now teach, no longer saw the point of those departments – at any rate, not beyond providing those gen ed courses that university accrediting associations still require. In the mid-1980s, a couple of Transy’s startling number of business majors indicated to me in conversation that, someday, I’d be working for people like them – that their business degrees would give them the power to hire and fire secretaries with my ubiquitous editing skills – the implication being that I should stop acting so superior because good grammarians were a dime a dozen and the further study of literature was a waste of time. We English majors believed in it enough to keep reading and keep hauling Riverside Shakespeares and innumerable Norton anthologies around campus, and yet even we would have been hard-pressed to explain why.
However, my discipline, the study of literature, was once considered essential to a fulfilling, as well as a practical and productive, life. Professors of literature everywhere still mutter the reasons for this under their collective breath: critical thinking, analysis, empathy, effective communication, and good citizenship; but they are hopelessly aware, like Cassandra – the doomed prophetess in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon – that they are right, but no one will ever believe them. Among most people I encounter, at best, English departments can claim supporters of the arts who admire the beauty of literature, who refer to its ability to comfort people in times of need or its value as a repository of historical knowledge – and those points are indeed valid, though they are certainly not all literary study has to offer. At worst, of course, we have people like former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, unfortunately not alone in his belief that no subject classified as humanities constitutes an “asset of any value” or anything “helping to produce that 21st-century educated workforce” (Seltzer par. 3). Entirely too many people, both with and without political power, consider that the pointlessness of all subjects classified as humanities is obvious. In order for a course of American college study to have a point, they maintain, it must train students for specific jobs. English professors often interpret that sentiment to mean the kind of jobs that people with limited imaginations can imagine, and as the numbers of English majors decrease nation-wide – and as, consequently, fewer and fewer students graduate with broadened imaginations – the Cassandra-like muttering grows louder while it yet goes unheard by deafer and deafer ears.
Our cause is not helped when contemporary comedians like John Mulaney and Michael Palascak devote whole stage appearances to deriding the time they spent majoring in English (Mulaney has famously said that he paid $120,000 to Georgetown University for “a four-year degree in a language I already spoke”) – nor was it helped for several decades before them, when other celebrity English majors satirized their own commodifiable talents. Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, for instance, featured long-running sketches about “The Lives of English Majors,” in at least one of which Keillor and fellow English major Dave Barry presented themselves as cynical college students drinking beer and discussing their career options, which included dog walking, underwear modeling, and of course, teaching English (“The Lives” pars. 9-16). These options still hit a little too close to home for some of my current English majors whose parents’ reactions to their choice range from, at best, “What are you going to do? Teach?” to, at worst, some joke for which the punchline reads “Would you like fries with that?”
However, this paper has no intention of listing and describing ad nauseam all the career choices open to English majors. Those are well-documented, despite all the satire. Nor does this paper intend to trace either the history of our world’s utilitarian attitude or its rise over the last century. Those, too, are well-documented. I also want to note that I don’t present the following argument as the basis for any sort of competition with other disciplines. Many of the benefits of studying literature as a college major can be had through various courses of study, primarily the more traditional ones, including, but not limited to: history, political science, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. I am a firm believer that this world needs all those perspectives, since I have just enough education to know that I need to trust experts in all the subjects I don’t know. Instead, this paper intends to explain why an English major’s career choices are – or at least, should be – virtually unlimited. In other words, I want to explain some of what we teach in English departments and how that curriculum benefits students – in the job market certainly, but only as a part of its benefits to life.
To start, let’s return to those words and phrases English professors mutter under their collective breath: critical thinking, analysis, empathy, effective communication, and good citizenship. Since educators classify these as “soft skills,” rather than “hard skills,” none of them can be taught in a single class or workshop, nor can they be learned quite as easily at any time of life. In our view – the view of English professors – a college major should train a young adult’s brain to work in a healthy, logical, research-supported, manner – broad-based but also detail-oriented – and that takes time. I often explain soft skills to my students as “those things you know that you don’t remember learning – the kind of skills you realize you have only when you look back at something you wrote ten years ago and think ‘Man, was I stupid.’” Cynical English professors see “hard skills” as the purview of technical and vocational schools, or as the sorts of skills that may well be outdated inside a decade. Soft skills, on the other hand, allow a student to adapt to every new method, foresee potential advantages and disadvantages of every new technology, and act on these foresights as Cassandra could not.
But how could the study of poetry and fiction possibly teach all that? Let’s look at some of the literary and critical services we offer in English Departments:
We start with detailed analysis, in which we insist that our students pay attention to individual words and even to punctuation, or lack thereof. However, the key to detailed analysis, of course, is always to tie the detail back to the larger picture and the broader analysis. One way to illustrate this is to have a look at Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” from 1913. It consists of two lines only:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
It’s an example of imagism and of literary minimalism, and Pound has worked hard to form both the image and its message in the fewest words possible. The speaker is in a station of Paris’s subway system, looking at the people there – and it is “he”; with Pound, it always was. With Pound, it was also pretty much always white, which leads us to the word “apparition.” Pound identifies the crowds of white people he sees as unreal, without even physical substance, let alone character. The fact that he directs attention only to their “faces” strengthens that message, but it also reminds us of where he is: underground, which means artificial light – dark clothing would fade into obscurity against the shining image of faces artificially lit from above.
And once Pound highlights the artificiality of 1913’s modern technology, we can classify the poem as modernist, representing a school of thought whose poets wanted to showcase the hopeless nature of a modernized world which, as they saw it, deprived people of individual identities.
We can now take that understanding with us into the metaphor in the second line – and we must, since Pound ends his first line with a colon. Even though it might be almost invisible to the average reader, the colon – even more strongly than a comma – equates the descriptions in the two lines; the “apparitions” are, to Pound, “petals on a wet black bough.” Therefore, let us imagine “petals on a wet black bough”: It’s spring. The flowers have briefly offered vibrant color in profusion. But then the inevitable rains have come, dislodging millions of petals from their stems and carrying them downward to stick to every available surface, including the branches of the very trees that bore them. Sodden and pitiful, yanked from their source of life and plastered to its extremities, they have lost their color and their shape, becoming “apparitions” of their former selves, inspiring joy in no one. This was Pound’s view of people in the modern world.
In a classroom, I could (and I often do) go on from here, discussing many more implications of these two simple lines with a title. That’s the point of imagism: association, story-telling, the mind taking a handful of words and building whole worlds around them. Students focus on the words in the poem, seeing everything the words allow, which trains their brains to see causes and effects, to see implications that aren’t always obvious, to see multiple meanings of the same word. However, the best students, possibly guided by a competent instructor, will also see nothing the words don’t allow. They will look at all the words, and while they may extrapolate many ideas from some of those words, we insist that they not extend their thought processes to interpretations directly contradicted by other words – since, as with anything else in life, we must start by agreeing on a common set of facts, even if we allow a relatively broad series of interpretations of those facts.
Now let’s take a look at two of my favorite poets who employ deliberately unusual punctuation to add to the messages their words convey: Emily Dickinson and Amiri Baraka. Dickinson is famous for her dashes, and “Publication – is the Auction” is a good example:
Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing
Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –
Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then – to Him Who bear
It’s Corporeal illustration – sell
The Royal Air –
In the Parcel – Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace –
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price –
As a tentative explication of the poem itself, it presumably tells us what Dickinson thought of editors who (among other sins) usually insisted on repunctuating her work (which is perhaps at least one reason she published only about a dozen poems during her lifetime). For now, however, what do the dashes mean? Could we translate them as commas? Exclamation points? Parentheses, periods, or ellipses? Mere pauses for emphasis? Punctuation marks have definite meanings, and Dickinson seems purposely to deprive us of that much specificity. The first one seems to indicate only emphasis, as if Dickinson wanted to shout the first two lines and chose a pause between the first two words instead of underlining, perhaps, every word or employing exclamation points. The dash in the first line of the second stanza might well be replaced with a comma, except that probably Dickinson wanted a slightly longer pause there. We could then translate it as a semi-colon, but that seems a bit formal for Dickinson’s tone. There seems to be the option for a set of parentheses in that stanza as well, around “unto the White Creator,” but possibly not. One could (and I often do) spend several minutes in a single class period discussing the possible meanings of one dash. However, I never pretend to know why Dickinson used dashes almost exclusively; I merely offer the student the opportunity to discuss not only the possible meanings of each piece of punctuation but the ways in which Dickinson’s dashes open up each of her works to innumerable interpretations. Exploring all the possibilities expands my students’ thought processes – as well as offering a few grammar and punctuation lessons.
As opposed to Dickinson’s often exclusive use of one type of punctuation, Amiri Baraka, in “An Agony. As Now,” from 1964, plays with multiple types of punctuation in ingenious ways:
I am inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath. Love his
Slits in the metal, for sun. Where
my eyes sit turning, at the cool air
the glance of light, or hard flesh
rubbed against me, a woman, a man,
without shadow, or voice, or meaning.
This is the enclosure (flesh,
where innocence is a weapon. An
abstraction. Touch. (Not mine.
Or yours, if you are the soul I had
and abandoned when I was blind and had
my enemies carry me as a dead man
(if he is beautiful, or pitied.
It can be pain. (As now, as all his
flesh hurts me.) It can be that. Or
pain. As when she ran from me into
Or pain, the mind
silver spiraled whirled against the
sun, higher than even old men thought
God would be. Or pain. And the other. The
yes. (Inside his books, his fingers. They
are withered yellow flowers and were never
beautiful.) The yes. You will, lost soul, say
‘beauty.’ Beauty, practiced, as the tree. The
slow river. A white sun in its wet sentences.
Or, the cold men in their gale. Ecstasy. Flesh
or soul. The yes. (Their robes blown. Their bowls
empty. They chant at my heels, not at yours.) Flesh
or soul, as corrupt. Where the answer moves too quickly.
Where the God is a self, after all.)
Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes. Flesh,
white hot metal. Glows as the day with its sun.
It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton
you recognize as words or simple feeling.
But it has no feeling. As the metal, is hot, it is not,
given to love.
It burns the thing
inside it. And that thing
One could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on Baraka’s use of periods (and hence, sentence fragments), but for now, I would like to concentrate on his multiple opening parentheses, emphasizing the description of the innumerable masks that a black man wears in a white society – at least one of which is a metal mask of some sort that “burns the thing inside it.” Baraka opens six sets of parentheses in this poem. The first comes, meaningfully, immediately after the line “This is the enclosure” – and indeed it is, or at least one of them. After the word “Touch,” a second set opens. Then, after the phrase “dead man,” a third set opens – indicating the danger both each mask and its removal pose to the man. Then Baraka employs three more full sets of parentheses, both opening and closing them, before he finally closes the third set, but never the second or the first. We have seen this far into the man himself, into the pain that makes him scream in the final line, but we are left wondering how many more layers remain behind the hot metal, and the answer is probably infinite. Yet burning, screaming – and possibly death – have all happened both because the man feels forced to wear these masks and because he has removed at least two of them, leaving him exposed and vulnerable.
I’m hoping you’ve already felt at least a little admiration for the beauty (sometimes horrific beauty) of these poets’ images. I do not want for a minute to dismiss the power of beauty to communicate an idea. And certainly, the messages of all three poets are worth understanding in historical context. But does the act of such detailed analysis itself offer students any practical benefit? I think it does, and one of those benefits might be a better understanding of some phrases heard often in today’s social and political debates. Let’s start with the rallying cry: “Black lives matter.”
It was always a reaction to historical context. That’s what people shouting “All lives matter” either don’t understand or outright ignore. If all of us had been shouting “All lives matter” from the beginning – and had acted accordingly – no one would need to shout “Black lives matter,” because it would always have been an obvious part of “All lives matter.” And this is why “All lives matter,” as a response, disgusts those who insist “Black lives matter.” We look at murder after murder that cannot be explained by any phenomenon other than a complete absence of respect for black lives, and we get angry. This anger then explains the absence of one word that might have placated at least a few of the “All lives matter” crowd – the word “too” added to the end of “Black lives matter.” But the word “too” implies secondary status, an addendum, subjugation – and we’ve seen quite enough of that by now. Black lives matter. That’s it. It’s a rallying cry that defies argument.
That said, conservatives have usually been better at branding than liberals have, and if you take the phrase “All lives matter” only at face value, it also defies argument. To interpret both statements, we have to be able to focus on both the details and the broader context. Conservatives have also given us “Death Tax,” which in political dogma, replaced the more representative “Estate tax,” due to the connotations of the words “death” and “estate.” The word “estate” connotes vast rolling fields of vivid green grass, a house on the scale of Downton Abbey, and maybe a stable or two, complete with horses, all encircled by miles of stone wall, possibly with glass shards or barbed wire on top. Hence the estate tax, which now applies to a person’s assets worth in excess of about $11.5 million; if memory serves, it used to be $1 million. Why anyone who supported a family on less than $50,000/year ever voted for anyone who advocated that change is almost entirely down to conservatives’ rebranding it as a “Death tax.” Never mind that, legally, everybody who dies leaves an estate of some sort. That’s not what we think of when someone uses the word “estate,” and conservatives knew that. If you want poor people to vote to let rich people keep their money, you have to make it sound like a law that could apply to them, and everybody dies.
So that’s what attention to small details in poetry can train a brain to notice, and yes, I think it has a practical as well as an aesthetic application. In the process of analyzing words and punctuation, we also, of necessity, apply broader meanings, implications, and contexts, pushing ourselves into critical thinking along the way, and I assert that, over the course of two or three years studying poetry, stories, novels, and plays, students learn to analyze words almost automatically, find meanings without being forced to do so or being told what they’re looking for, and in fact, feel driven to explore histories and contexts just out of pure curiosity. And that’s where research – or if you like, fact-checking – comes in.
We start our students off looking at literature through a process generally called “close reading.” It means looking at all the words on the page, figuring out all the possible meanings therein, but also not making up out of whole cloth meanings which are not there. We then encourage them to look at the works in the context of historical periods, to look up earlier meanings of words they might encounter, and sometimes even to check out biographical details of the author. Then we tell them to go look up what other people – besides us, their professors – have to say about the same works. Thus, they find even more meanings, even broader areas of analysis, and often, even contradictory interpretations, which they then must use their critical thinking skills to evaluate. And of course, we do all this by assigning them analytical research papers, which means they have to not only come up with all these ideas but organize them and communicate them in writing. Last fall, in a paper on the purpose of a liberal arts education, a freshman composition student of mine quoted a source claiming that upwards of 60% of “hiring managers” didn’t care whether or not their employees had a college degree. Her paper argued that general education classes in a liberal arts tradition were useless and that students should be allowed to get straight to their majors. I pointed her to another source which claimed that approximately 90% of CEOs of major corporations preferred hiring graduates of liberal arts colleges. And then I asked her to tell me the difference between “CEOs of major corporations” and “hiring managers.” She suggested that “hiring managers” sounded as if it had something to do with the loading dock at Amazon. In other words, before she started looking at specific words, she was perfectly willing to use whatever source she found that supported what she already believed. Once she looked more closely at the source, she began to question the whole concept. Now, I would love to say that she ended up arguing against her original thesis. She didn’t, but she did find better sources to argue it. My English majors, however, after a year or so of study, begin to do this sort of thing automatically, without prompting. When they hear politicians tell them “What the American people want is . . . ” they ask: Which American people? When a politician prefaces a claim with the phrase “A lot of people have been saying . . . .” they ask: Who, specifically, has said that? And when they hear a politician say “You know this is true,” they ask themselves: Do I? And I consider this questioning a very healthy thing.
I would now like to set practical applications aside for a moment and return to the concept of appreciation of beauty in literature because it’s as good a place as any to deal with both imagery and symbolism, as well as a good way to approach the concept of empathy.
Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” first published in 1949, begins with an assignment from a white instructor of English at what was then Columbia College, which Hughes attended briefly in the 1920s:
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
Hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
This one always takes even my general education students to places they never thought literature could take them, more and more so in recent years. Since I often tell them to “go home and write a page tonight,” they feel as though the poem empathizes with them right from the start, and they return that empathy.
In addition, Hughes’s list of all the places he has lived and gone to school, what he enjoys, and what he likes to get for Christmas all resemble the sorts of literal details students give me in those pages they write for my classes – when they’re not yet sure how to form those details into a larger point. But then Hughes concludes that nothing about any of that makes him all that different from people of other races. And in the process, he refers to “this college on the hill above Harlem” – using the phrase “above Harlem” to describe both literally where it is and symbolically the difference educated white people see between themselves and the black people who live below them. But he then dispenses with this traditional symbolism, simply by giving precise directions from the college to where he lives. In other words, if he can go home from class at Columbia by walking down the steps and crossing certain streets, that also explains how he got there, a process he can as easily repeat the next day, which makes all that guff about above and below ring a little hollow. But the best symbol in the poem may be the “page” that his instructor has told the class to write. Hughes asks “will my page be colored that I write?/ Being me, it will not be white,” and then he goes on to explain that he and his white instructor are part of each other’s stories, whether they like it or not. But if we task a reader with imagining any literal page – any piece of paper – that page will almost certainly be some shade of white, and yet the ink on that page will most likely be some shade of black or brown, and thus, the image of the page becomes a symbol for what has to happen. Without both contrasting colors on the same page, there can be no communication, no progress, and nothing “American.”
Many people consider symbolism perhaps a pretty but nonetheless meaningless feature of the arts in general, having no place in real life, but I would urge those people to consider the symbolism of the American flag. In our recent increasingly divided history, some have chosen to wrap themselves in that flag, sometimes even literally, implying that they are the truest of patriots. Others have chosen to kneel before it to show perhaps some respect for the concepts the flag represents but an objection to the ways in which those concepts seem to have come to nothing – at least for some of the population, and since the flag is supposed to symbolize freedom for all, then really it has no business trying to symbolize freedom for only a few. Almost all American political perspectives see the flag as a symbol for something that depends almost entirely on their individual understanding of what is versus what should be. Most sides see the potential for beauty in that symbol, a potential that may be under threat or may never yet have existed. And for every side, the symbol is so powerful it becomes difficult to explain, especially to another side. In upper-level English classes, we explain symbols – like Hughes’s page and the ink on it, which must go together – and like stars, representing fifty united states, and stripes, representing thirteen original colonies. We also know how to explain the difference between the flag of the United States of America and the one surviving battle flag of the Confederate States of America. Literature classes teach students to recognize not just the power of symbols but also how symbols are used – and here, competition or not, I do have to say that no one teaches symbolism like an English department.
So far, I’ve focused on poetry, because I wanted to show the texts I was talking about, but of course, fiction and drama also do all these things, with the added elements of more detailed plots, characters, and settings. So do essays and sermons. I’m not convinced anyone can teach empathy in a college classroom, but I will say that exposure to characters from many different places and time periods, as well as to close analysis of how characters change over the course of a plot, can at least encourage empathy – sometimes even for the most despicable characters, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
When we meet him, he is a valiant, well-respected general of King Duncan’s army, and he has just finished slaughtering lots of Norwegian soldiers in a battle the Scots have won. We watch the witches put an idea into his head, and we watch that idea change him. Whether the witches truly possess supernatural powers or whether they simply know how to employ the power of suggestion is a question my students argue differently each time, but we do see Macbeth struggle against the prospect of killing King Duncan – over several scenes. He lists Duncan’s good qualities, as well as all the arguments against killing him, and finally describes his own motivations as simply “vaulting ambition” which “o’erleaps itself.” And if we read carefully, we could argue that Lady Macbeth, while certainly pretty harsh in demeaning her husband’s manhood, pushes him to kill Duncan not just out of a desire to be queen herself but also out of an intimate and long-standing knowledge of her husband’s tendency to settle for less than she thinks he deserves.
The scene where Macbeth returns to the witches – after having killed Duncan and then Banquo and then all of Macduff’s family – to ask for some reassurance that everything will turn out okay, shows his extremely human tendency to see only what he wants – desperately – to see, in spite of the evidence. The witches show him three apparitions, but the only clear prophecy they offer him is to “beware Macduff!” The other apparitions are symbolic representations of what will indeed happen to him: A “bloody child,” representing a baby cut from its mother’s womb, informs Macbeth that “none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.1638-43); another child carrying a tree in his hand, representing Malcolm’s order to his army to cut branches for camouflage, tells him that he “shall never vanquish’d be until/ Great Birnham wood to high Dunsinane hill/ shall come against him” (IV.i.1658-60). Both of these prophecies seem ridiculous to Macbeth, since all people are born of their mothers and trees don’t move, and thus he dismisses them – or at least interprets them as meaning he will never be defeated. But Macbeth has missed the symbolism of the apparitions themselves. Thus, when one of the ridiculous-sounding prophecies eventually comes true – Birnham Wood does indeed appear “to move” (V.v.2394)– Macbeth at last knows that somewhere there must also be a man not “of woman born” who will kill him – and so do we. A stressed out and literal-minded Macbeth labels the witches “the fiend that lies like truth” (V.v.2404), puts on his armor, and goes out to meet his fate, like the honorable warrior he once was. And we, as either audience or reader, understand every single one of his motivations throughout – as well as his desperate reluctance to believe in his imminent destruction. We may never have bowed so far to the power of suggestion as to commit murder, but we see why he does it. My mother, who taught English at what was then Midway Junior College in the early 1960s, used to tell a story of having gotten to the end of a class period on Macbeth, with almost all the students enthusiastically discussing how truly evil he was by the end. She said there was a brief silence before a small voice from the back of the room said: “But I like him, and I feel sorry for him.” And that is empathy.
But it’s also character analysis, which comes in handy when we observe a politician who has never admitted any personal fault, despite numerous bankruptcies – whose respect for world leaders has been limited to dictators alone – who obviously neither understands nor sees any use for democracy – who, using the most childishly simplistic criteria, has labeled as “losers” people whom many Americans have considered heroes. Hearing educated people describe the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol Building as “unimaginable” or as something “no one could have anticipated,” I have shaken my head in frustration because of course, we should have anticipated it. This was always the way the story was going to end – if, indeed, it has ended. Stories are built around characters, and characters are based on the observations of the human beings who write them – because literature doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Literature is the history of human thought, human imagination, and of humanity itself.
This brings us back to the historical value of literature – actually, both historical and predictive. A literature course may well be the only place an undergraduate student will ever encounter the enlightening autobiographical writings of figures such as Olaudah Equiano, Sarah Kemble Knight, or Booker T. Washington. But fiction also has social points to make. A look at Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 could tell us that the military industrial complex was alive and well long before Eisenhower warned of it on his way out of the White House, and E.L Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, perhaps even more intensely than Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, shows the terrifying possibilities governments opened up for themselves during the 1950s Red Scare. Literature has also been predicting the future for a long time. If we’ve read Stephen King’s The Stand, or Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, do we have a better understanding of how pandemics work, not to mention how human beings react to them? If we’ve read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, do we have a better understanding of why a governor could insist that colleges are meant to create money-makers rather than thinkers? A country full of Deltas and Epsilons is a lot easier to control than one full of Alphas and Betas, the only difference being the type and the level of their education. And for a description of the recent occupants of the White House, need we really look further than Nick Carraway’s description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? – “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . .” (179).
Every morning during the pandemic, when I heard the latest COVID-19 death toll, both statewide and nationally, I remembered one line from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” For two months during the early summer of 2020, as stories about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor filled the news, along with reports of July Fourth preparations, I remembered bits of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”: “To him,” says Douglass, “. . . your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity . . . .” And since no student of literature should ever be immune to a good film, all those stories of Russian hacks into I can no longer remember how many branches of the federal government, reminded me of George C. Scott, as General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, exclaiming: “But he’ll see the Big Board!” and I said to myself, Welp, they’ve definitely seen our Big Board now, and here’s hoping we don’t end up with “a mineshaft gap” because of it. Every disaster novel and film ever written has begun with governments ignoring science. And Mary Shelley tried to show us 200 years ago that, when men with obsessive desires for power create monsters, they inevitably lose control of them.
Good literature sticks in your head. It files itself away until an echo brings it back. And if a student learns to read – really read – over time, analyzing everything, questioning and researching and then questioning even the research itself – then that student will see patterns, remember human lessons learned decades, centuries, or millennia ago by writers who understood characters and stories. Investors in business need to be able to see, not just one possible outcome, but three or four of them, taking into account as many potential outside influences as possible – which means telling themselves stories. Doctors need speaking, writing, and listening skills, to get all potentially useful information from their patients and then match it up to lab reports – to tell a whole story, to their patients as well as to themselves. An increased focus, more and more over the past fifty years, on money as the only point of life has branded my discipline – among others – as useless, and we are now looking at the result: a vociferous portion of society that cannot parse words, cannot analyze character, cannot place current events into broader contexts, cannot trust anyone who knows things they don’t, cannot discern truth from lies, and therefore cannot reason beyond their own insulated societies. College shouldn’t be limited to job training. College should be life training. It’s still not a competition, but I have heard people say that a student who spends four years learning how to read fiction and poetry isn’t fit for any “good job.” If a “good job” requires the ability to hear (not to mention write) words while interpreting all their meanings, to fit together fact and interpretation, to meet people on their individual levels and work with them, to foresee both positive and negative implications of every new development, and to figure out new technologies and adapt to them, then I can’t imagine a good job for which that student isn’t fit – or a life that wouldn’t benefit from those skills in a thousand ways.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner’s, 2004.
Gehrz, Chris. “‘I paid $120,000 . . . to accept a four-year degree in a language I already spoke.” The Pietist Schoolman. 25 Feb. 2019. https://pietistschoolman.com/2019/02/25/i-paid-120000-to-accept-a-four-year-degree-in-a-language-i-already-spoke. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021.
“The Lives of English Majors.” A Prairie Home Companion, with Garrison Keillor. 14 Jun. 1997. https://www.prairiehome.org/story/1997/06/14/the-lives-of-english-majors.html. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.
Mulaney, John. “Best of John Mulaney.” YouTube. 14 Aug. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiqKK4ysI7g. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021.
Seltzer, Rick. “Disparaging Interpretive Dance (and More)?” Inside Higher Ed. 14 Sept. 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/14/kentuckys-governor-says-universities-should-think-about-cutting-programs-poor-job. Accessed 5 January 2021.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Dover, 1993.
 See, for instance, Northwestern University’s list here: https://english.northwestern.edu/undergraduate/careers-english.html, or Hendrix College’s list here: https://www.hendrix.edu/english/.
 One could begin with: Zoe Hope Bulaitis’s Value and the Humanities: The Neo-Liberal University and Our Victorian Inheritance. Palgrave MacMillan, 2020.