A couple of weeks ago, I discovered one of the more interesting articles I’ve read this year. 

Marilynne Robinson’s essay in the current issue of the “The New York Review of Books” is drawn from her new book, What Are We Doing Here?. which will be published in February.

Robinson is an American novelist and essayist and has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, the 2012 National Humanities Medal, and the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

It is impossible to do this lengthy essay sufficient justice by only lifting a few quotes but I hope that what I now provide will give you sufficient motivation to read the entire essay.

“Why teach the humanities? Why study them? American universities are literally shaped around them and have been since their founding, yet the question is put in the bluntest form—what are they good for?  .  .  .

 .  .  .  The questions being put to us now—What good are the humanities? Why are they at the center of our education?—might, for all history can tell us, be answered decisively by this vision of the effects of learning, which took hold and flourished as the study of ancient poetry, philosophy and language, Scripture and theology, and of history itself, by means of the printing press and the rise of vernacular languages, long before science and technology even began to come abreast of them.  .  .  .

.  .  .  One of our recent presidential candidates called for an attack on the “cartel…of universities,” by which he means our system of public higher education. The phrase is startling, considering that these institutions are in effect great city-states, shaped by their regions and histories, largely supported by their alumni, variously specialized around faculties that are attracted by distinctive areas of excellence. Recently, despite their enormous contributions to science and technology, they have been losing the support of many state legislatures, first on the pretext of austerity, and then on the grounds that they were properly understood as burdens on the public, rather than as public assets. As state financing fell, tuitions rose, involving many students in burdensome debt. For generations people had, in effect, prepaid their children’s and grandchildren’s tuition and underwritten the quality of their education by paying taxes. Suddenly the legislatures decided to put the money to other uses, or to cut taxes, and families were obliged to absorb much higher costs. For this, blame has fallen on the universities. And since the new cost of university is weighed against potential earnings, students and families being so burdened, the humanities are under great pressure to justify their existence.  .  .  .

 .  .  .  What are we doing here, we professors of English? Our project is often dismissed as elitist. That word has a new and novel sting in American politics. This is odd, in a period uncharacteristically dominated by political dynasties. Apparently the slur doesn’t stick to those who show no sign of education or sophistication, no matter what their pedigree. Be that as it may. There is a fundamental slovenliness in much public discourse that can graft heterogeneous things together around a single word. There is justified alarm about the bizarre concentrations of wealth that have occurred globally, and the tiny fraction of the wealthiest one percent who have wildly disproportionate influence over the lives of the rest of us. They are called the elite, and so are those of us who encourage the kind of thinking that probably does make certain of the young less than ideal recruits to their armies of the employed.

 If there is a point where the two meanings overlap, it would be in the fact that the teaching we do is what in America we have always called liberal education, education appropriate to free people, very much including those old Iowans who left the university to return to the hamlet or the farm. Now, in a country richer than any they could have imagined, we are endlessly told we must cede that humane freedom to a very uncertain promise of employ-ability.  .  .  .

 .  .  .  Literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced. I think this phenomenon is an effect of the utilitarian hostility to the humanities and to art, an attempt to repackage them, to give them some appearance of respectability. And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”

More on Monday  –  –  –

   — Bill Walton, co-Founder, ITC Learning

           November 1, 2017
 (Mondays & Wednesdays)


 (This is a personal blog.  Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner,, an independent consultant.  They do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in a professional or personal capacity.)