I recently read a blog post (you can read it here) where the author commented on the attitudes some people have toward different academic studies. According to the author, fields of study like physics, mathematics, and biology–fields collectively known as “hard sciences” and based on reasoning and mathematical proofs–as more important and more factually true than the study of literature, which is seen as “soft” and therefore variable, indefinite, and downright false.
Now I admit that those who study literature (and those who create it) aren’t solving the mysteries of the universe, curing cancer, or creating alternative forms of energy. And I admit that you can look at a novel, poem, play or short story and draw many different meanings from the author’s comparison of blue curtains to the blue sky. And yes, fiction is, by definition, outright falsehoods. There’s no Hogwarts, the zombies aren’t coming for us, and in all likelihood Dante never visited all three realms of the afterlife.
But I don’t think that the English major is inferior to physics or chemistry or engineering. Far from it. I believe the English major fulfills a different role than the hard sciences. Fields like elementary neuroscience and evolutionary biology and botany seek to understand the physical world around us. Literature and English majors, on the other hand, seek to understand the human condition, to understand our collective soul. We’re focusing on a whole other dimension of existence, multi-layered and able to bring understanding and meaning to the lives of others. We make metaphor of life, turn it into art, show our darkest fears and our deepest desires in the struggles of characters brought to life through letters and words.
Isn’t that worthwhile in itself? To make people understand through a story not only themselves but the world around them? To feel empathy for a character, joy when they triumph and sadness when they struggle, because that character reminds a reader of themselves or what they want to be? I think it is, especially since reading and writing bring so much fulfillment to me and to the people I know who feel the same way I do.
Besides, the hard sciences may be solving mysteries and doing important work, but there is something that they lack, and that is the ability to identify with and inspire the masses. The theory of relativity will never be able to define an age like The Great Gatsby did, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle will never have the same effect on our youth like Harry Potter did.
Sure, you can argue that the space race defined the sixties and seventies and that the Internet and technology defines us now. But let me remind you that those age-defining technologies were first dreamed about in a literature course or on a writer’s desk while his pen rolled across a page. From cell phones to space ships to the Roomba, all were first talked about and made awesome and terrible by some writer somewhere (especially if that writer’s name is Isaac Asimov).
And yet even today’s technology is influencing literature. Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress was as much inspired by the Internet as the blog and the webisode were. Several science fiction writers are now writing works on how social media and hacking are becoming a total part of our society and reflecting on that. And I wouldn’t do some of my best writing without technology.
So these fields aren’t competing with each other for superiority or totally exclusive. On the contrary, they merely handle different fields of our existence and feed each other occasionally. It’s like the relationship between bees and flowers: the bees get their food from the flowers and spread the pollen around so that the flowers can create new seeds. In this sense, they are helping each other grow.
So deride my English major anytime. I may not be solving some mysterious aspect about black holes or quarks, but I might just give you an idea someday on how to solve that mystery. And you may never be able to write your own homage to Edgar Allen Poe, but your work on cancer research or molecular genetics may give me or a friend some new idea for a future bestseller. It could happen.
What’s your take on this subject?