‘Humanities Help Us Better Enjoy, Endure Life’ (New Yorker)

Bookshelf libraryAdam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, laments the ebbing allure of the English major: “The English major is vanishing from our colleges as the Latin prerequisite vanished before it, we’re told, a dying choice bound to a dead subject.”

Even worse are some common defenses for studying English, which come in two varieties: one insisting that English majors make better people, the other that they make for better societies. Neither claim stands up against the historical evidence, Gopnik argues. “Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer.”

Instead, Gopnik says the best reason to offer an English major is because many people like books, and “English departments democratize the practice of reading. When they do, they make the books of the past available to all.”

Gopnik goes on to say that an “entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose” is more or less insane. “We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. …We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because…they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.”



  1. Mike Coster says:

    Right on Adam!!
    My Bowdoin Humanities experience has been a gold mine—not in $$$$ but in great appreciation for life and living.–“That’s enough ”
    Mike Coster ’57

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