As an English Major six years out of college, I occasionally wonder what kinds of doors might have opened for me had I studied, let’s say, Engineering. Would I still be struggling to live up to my family’s expectations of me?
I have been asking myself this question with more frequency after having lunch with a friend, an accountant for a tech company and avid lover of geology, who is currently working towards his second Bachelor degree. As part of his prerequisite program, he must complete an introductory English course before the end of the school year and decided on the current semester to get it out of the way. “This class is absolutely miserable,” he laments. I laugh because I understand his struggle. Reading Shakespeare is difficult, after all, let alone having to explain in 5-6 pages how Shakespeare’s use of language reveals character while using a second source analysis to support your argument. “I’m never going to use any of this information.” I’ll give him that. “It has no practical application in the real world. I learn nothing of actual value. There’s just no point to it.”
Based on the statistics, he might have a point. A 2017 National Association of Colleges and Employers report rates engineering, computer and math sciences at the top of the list of highest average salary, while Humanities and Education are at the bottom, unchanged from the previous year. Just look at Forbes’ list of top ten most valuable degrees compiled annually in the last couple years and you’ll find a catalog of degrees that reads like a contact list straight out of Qualcomm. For us English majors, the future looks bleak.
I will be the first to admit I have faced many disappointments since I was an eager, bright-eyed student. My time in the job market has been challenging and led me to question the my choice to study literature as I came to recognize by experience how difficult it really is to apply a liberal arts degree in the “real world.”
Yet as I listen to my friend complain about Othello, I remember why I decided to study English in the first place. It does, in fact, have a point. Literature always has and always will continue to play a vital and measurable role in the development of our society. Even a cursory look into history shows us the ways that literary development has not just mirrored, but actively engaged in almost all of the sweeping social, cultural, and political changes that have created the world today. Even in the midst of today’s contentious political climate, books such as George Orwell’s 1984 are re-emerging as highly relevant readings, highlighting the role literature continues to play in human progress.
I would like to clarify, this is not an opportunity for me to expound the importance of political correctness or the virtues of staying informed. More than anything, I wish to show you how perpetuating the tale of the Humanities as a field of study that lacks applicability or significance is not only reductive, but dangerous as well.
A Look at History
Consumers of today’s image and soundbite-driven media are limited to a vague or ephemeral understanding of the transformations that have made society what it is today. Unfortunately, the current educational system does little to remedy this; it is simply understood that humankind has evolved. We progressed from caves to huts, paganism to monotheism, despotism to democracy, until gradually, we developed into the modern men and women we are today. Such oversimplifications, however, ignore the context from which today’s democratically governed, scientifically driven, and forward thinking value systems have been made possible. We must look at history, beginning with the introduction of the printing press to the rise of the middle class, in order to understand the significance that literature has played in the development of modern life.
English citizens who lived during the Middle Ages before the introduction of the printing press were largely illiterate, reading at the time being the exclusive right of those who were specially learned. Among those privileged few were members of the Catholic Church who were infallible guides to human existence for its masses of followers who placed their trust in their clerical leaders in order to regain direct access to the word of God. “A vast system of confessions, pardons, penance, absolution, indulgences, sacred relics, and ceremonies gave the unmarried male clerical hierarchy great power, at once spiritual and material, over their largely illiterate flock” (Norton 490).
By the beginning of the 15th century, Europe was seeing the emergence of a movement we now call the Renaissance which displaced these tendencies towards religious dogma in favor of institutional reform and public education modeled after the Greek classics. For Renaissance thinkers, Greek civilization represented the pinnacle of human perfection before society’s decline precipitated by the corruption of the Catholic Church.
The solidification of this movement would not have been possible, however, without the creation of the printing press in the middle of the century which introduced mass print production and drastically increased the literacy rate during the 16th century. By means of vernacular translations of the Bible, which became widely available for the first time, the period saw the triumphant spread of Protestantism throughout Europe and belief in a direct relationship with God through Scripture. Access to the Bible provided fuel for the movement known as the Protestant Reformation, which, for the first time, gave people the means of earning their own salvation. Dependence on the clergy for spiritual fulfillment diminished significantly during this period and placed that power into the hands of individuals, greatly loosening the choke-hold the Catholic Church had on the populace, which in turn set the stage for Henry VIII to declare independence from the Roman Papacy (although he himself did not necessarily support Protestant theology either).
The widespread availability of the Bible revolutionized the social, political, and theological systems that were in place and testifies to literature’s power to affect change in a measurable way. It may be worthwhile to note here that of the 70% of U.S. citizens who identify Christian, 67% identify as Protestant, making up nearly half the population of the United States, according to a 2014 Pew Research survey.
By the start of the 18th century, a characteristic faith in the power of reason to perfect the human condition began to take hold of the social consciousness. This was a period of relative peace and prosperity, leading to the consolidation of the middle class and rise of a secularism which emphasized empirical observation over God as an approach to human nature and the world. Rational thinking was set above blind faith from which the authority of those in power depended on for so long.
Defining the framework of this movement were philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin who critiqued the systems of power and “found[ed] the principle upon which hinged Western philosophy in the eighteenth century: Dare to reason independently and question authority, even if it means toppling the very foundations of culture and society” (Western 13). These writers were part of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a period which gave voice to the burgeoning middle class whose needs and desires took center stage over those of the aristocracy. Inspired by the changes going on around them, they rejected blind faith in those with power and championed the rights of all people, who they believed to be inherently the same regardless of wealth or status.
For example, Voltaire in “Candide” satirizes the tendency of those who support the status quo towards convenient, simplistic explanations for life’s complexities that make it all too easy to accept the system for what it is. Rousseau in “Confessions” advocates the importance of individual rights while Benjamin Franklin in his “Autobiography” attempts to elevate the newly formed middle class who he believed represented morality and progress.
The works of these writers helped shape a shared sense of philanthropy which made possible the social reforms rarely imagined before then. The social and intellectual movements were inextricably linked by a common goal: to overturn the systems of power and establish a new, democratic society. They mutually inspired each other to resist the status quo and push for radical change even in the face of persecution. By the end of the 18th century, the world sees the decline in the power of despots, the end of absolutism in France, and the secession of the Thirteen American Colonies in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
History reveals how literature raised the curtain on a new era of religious freedom, civil liberties, social progress, intellectual improvement, and scientific discovery all in the hope of achieving a better world for humankind. Since the beginning of mass printing, literature has been a vehicle to connect minds and hearts, a tradition that has nourished a “people’s power” that remains strong till this day. Today’s modern society is defined by progress, and preserving the voices of the past is necessary in continuing this tradition and remaining on a steady path toward a better world.
How Books Can Change the Future
The 20th century has presented many problems when it comes to understanding how information should be processed and the truth filtered. With new mediums such as broadcast outgrowing print as a major form of mass communication and technology, the turn of the century brought with it a prodigious number of platforms by which individuals, organizations, and governments were capable of disseminating information to whatever end fit them. While media has been viewed as a check on political power meant to serve and inform the public to be better prepared for the political process, the overabundance of contradictory information confounded the public and helped raised the collective post-Modern question: How do I know what’s real?
The contentious political discourse that has taken shape during the 2016 presidential election and that continues to polarize the country today compounded this problem even further and led to an unprecedented decline in the public trust of the media. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, “confidence in the mass media… has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history,” or since its first polling in 1972, signaling a shift in the relationship between media and the consumer. The extent to which this can be attributed to Donald Trump’s comments about the media remains to be seen, but his successful bid for presidency, made on the premise of his anti-establishment rhetoric coupled with his lack of political experience, suggests that voters were looking for an alternative to the politicians and media outlets that jointly represented the status quo.
This has resulted in a media vacuum that must necessarily be filled by the critical voices of classic writers whose insights transcend space and time. Among the most relevant in the current situation is George Orwell’s “1984”, which provides a lens through which can be seen clearly the political and economic system for what it truly is. Michiko Kakutani, in her article “Why ‘1984’ is a 2017 Must-Read” for the New York Times, reveals how Orwell holds a mirror up to the current society by detailing the various similarities that it holds to his dystopian world where government is omnipotent, truth is malleable, and personal freedoms non-existent. Far from undergoing a reversal, occurring is a tendency towards a world dominated by oligarchies, corrupt politicians, and biased media. As unfeasible as the world he imagined seems, indications that society is moving in that direction should be an alarm bell. At the same time, the fact that Orwell’s story was published long before this time yet continues to resonate (it soared to #1 on Amazon’s best seller’s list earlier this year) attests to the universal truths it embodies and the resilience with which it endures.
During these confusing times, these truths act as a guide by which to navigate the murky waters of today’s inflated media coverage. When the ground upon which truth stands seems shaky at best, “1984” reminds readers that beyond their own limited perspective, there is an objective, verifiable reality that cannot be molded or shaped. If the majority is to resist the threat of totalitarianism, it must not give in to dogma, partisanship, or groupthink, a tendency to abandon independent thinking in favor of group conformity. Individuals must trust the infallible voice inside them that clings to the truth and is impenetrable to the lies they are told.
While literature informs and instructs us, it also empowers us to think both critically and creatively. We must observe its knowledge and read the warning signs they provide, especially in the midst of our current Information Age when mass confusion and panic increasingly become an ordinary state of mind. With the Trump administration gearing up to completely eliminate federal spending on the country’s four major cultural agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, while inflating the defense budget to over $600 billion, more than that of the next seven highest spending nations combined, we must observe the role of literature to, in the words of Samuel Johnson, “examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances… to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to every mind”.