Columnist Gene Lyons: The humanities are not dead — art, authors still important

All right then, it’s official. People like me have gone out of fashion, grown superannuated, way past their sell-by date. According to no less an authority than The New Yorker, that most bookish of large-circulation magazines, the academic study of imaginative literature is in the process of vanishing from American college campuses. The humanities, we’re told, are all but finished.

“During the past decade,” writes Nathan Heller, “the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third.” It gets worse: From 2012 to 2020, “the number of graduated humanities majors at Ohio State’s main campus fell by 46%. Tufts lost nearly 50% of its humanities majors, and Boston University lost 42. Notre Dame ended up with half as many as it started with, while SUNY Albany lost almost three-quarters.”

Apparently, ambitious undergraduates are convinced that literature and history don’t pay. One young freshman, a South African exchange student at Harvard, put it to the reporter this way: “Am I just putting myself in a position where, in four years’ time, I’m going to be earning significantly less money than people I went to school with?” he asked.

Could be. I have to say I already understood that back when I was applying for jobs as an assistant professor of English — a career for which I suspected I might not be a perfect fit. As things turned out, my suspicions were correct. I was simply the wrong breed of cat, unsuited to an academic career.

Teaching was one thing. But teach the same books every year for decades? Even “Gulliver’s Travels,” Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satirical novel that I, like my 20th-century literary hero George Orwell, found endlessly diverting, would grow stale with repetition.

Although Orwell’s lengthy essay, “Politics Vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels,” quite misses the point. For all his genius — his anti-communist classic “Animal Farm” pays obvious homage to Swift — Orwell failed to appreciate the Irish author’s whimsical, playful side. Not surprising, I suppose, for an author whose sense of humor is not among his greatest gifts.

Preoccupied with political ideology, Orwell mistook Swift’s talking horses — “Houyhnhnms,” they called themselves, an approximation of the sound the animals make when a friend enters the barn — for would-be commissars. Partly because Orwell himself had commissars on the brain, he failed to get the joke.

An Arkansas country girl I once taught remarked upon how much Swift knew about horses. Well, of course, he did. That’s how he made his way around his native Ireland back in the 1720s. Swift kept horses at the vicarage and rode for exercise every day. When it rained, he climbed up and down the steps of St. Patrick’s cathedral, where he presided.

Would-be dictators? The Houyhnhnms’ observations about violent, horse-abusing Yahoos are pretty much what horses would say if they could talk. And of course they agree on all topics; among herd animals, all decisions are group decisions. One runs, they all run. And yes, they find lying incomprehensible. Horses fall for the old bucket trick again and again.

Sex once a year? Well, that’s how it goes in the pasture. Horses are innately conservative. What they like is for everything to be the same every day. For the satire to work, the Houyhnhnms had to resemble the animals that people in Swift’s world knew well.

So was the author a proto-fascist and “insane” literary genius, as Orwell concluded? Not at all. However, he did die of what was almost certainly Alzheimer’s disease 20 years after his masterpiece was published, as Leo Damrosch’s brilliant 2013 biography makes clear.

Dead white men, both.

Swift’s savagely satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting that English gentlemen serve roasted Irish babies at dinner parties, says as much about the evils of colonialism as whole shelves of history.

Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” stand as the two most politically influential books of the 20th century.

So, no, I have never regretted spending much of my youth studying “storybooks” — pretty much the only things besides ballgames, women and Chuck Berry that fascinated me back then. (I also studied biology and physical geography, because I was curious to know how the world worked.)

I can’t help but suspect that many of those spending four years learning how to sell shirts or code video games will awaken in later years to find themselves wishing they’d done something more substantive with their time.

And while I also think that literary academics in particular have done a great deal to diminish their own profession — remember the great “deconstruction” fad? — like The New Yorker’s Heller, I’m somewhat encouraged to see that (largely older) online students and also high school kids taking AP classes are trending back toward the humanities.

After all, somebody’s got to write the scripts and compose the music, and it’s not going to be STEM graduates.

(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at [email protected])