Opinion: Why students persist in studying English lit in a tech world

It might surprise people today to learn that that the first endowed Research Chair at McGill was not in a subject such as Medicine or Law or Science, but in English Language and Literature. The creation of the Molson Chair of English Language and Literature was crucial in the establishment and survival of McGill as a university. Endowed through a bequest in the will of James McGill in 1813, the university had to fight his wife’s heirs who contested the legacy in order to get started at all. Officially founded in 1821 on what had been McGill’s country home, and opened in 1829, it was only able to admit its first class of students in 1843. When William Dawson, the revolutionary Principal from 1855-93, arrived, the place was a mess of ruined and unfinished buildings, overgrown with weeds and grazed on by cattle.

Dawson realized the situation was desperate. Complaining of the lack of government funding, he offered to live on his own savings and use his salary to help build the university. He also appealed to the English community in Montreal for help. As he noted later, the appeal was met “in a spirit of ready and unrestrained generosity,” and raised an endowment fund of 15,000 pounds. As part of this, the Molson brothers, John, Thomas and William, donated the whopping sum of 5000 pounds, a third of the total donation, to create McGill’s first endowed Chair: “the Molson Chair of English Language and Literature.”

The Molson’s choice of a field to single out for support at the time was remarkable. English was not a part of most university curricula until the very end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Before then, the core curriculum had been based on the Classics, and especially the study of Latin and Greek languages. The gradual turn to English as both language and subject of instruction was motivated by a number of educational reforms, especially the spread of education to groups, women and members of the lower classes, for whom the knowledge of Latin and Greek was not seen as necessary. Before it entered the universities, therefore, English began to appear as a kind of poor man’s Classics in places like working men’s colleges. There was some resistance as it began to move to the universities, especially from some of the oldest institutions where the Classics were most firmly entrenched. For a long time it wasn’t clear how it would be taught, or even what constituted “English” as a field: it is telling that among the earliest Molson Professors of English Language and Literature, William Turnbull Leach was a professor of classical literature who lectured also in mathematics, natural philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and moral philosophy.

In endowing a Chair in 1857 in a new and rather nebulous field such as English then the Molsons were doing something quite revolutionary, even avant-garde. Furthermore, they were making an important statement about what university education was for and should be. Their choice makes sense in terms of the language and cultural politics of Montreal then as now: it suggests a concern that the English language, literature, and traditions were worth preserving and needed support. It also indicates the Montreal English community’s sense of the mission of a university, and its relation to the community it served. They didn’t want to build an elitist institution for aristocratic gentlemen; influenced by the more egalitarian Scottish tradition of education, they imagined a system that would prepare young students for careers and a place in the world in which they would contribute to society.

Few people today would think the study of English literature either avant-garde or the best preparation for the North American business world. In the last few years especially there has been growing grumbling that the humanities in general are out of date, irrelevant in a technologically driven world. In times of economic difficulty like the present, the humanities can seem a luxury. Subjects such as English are seen by many as archaic in today’s business world. Students tell me of pressure from their parents and, increasingly, peers, who believe that studying the humanities will lead to long term unemployment and is somehow socially irresponsible.

Both of these claims are of course nonsense. Though the study of English does not lead to a job in the way that it is assumed a degree in, say, engineering will, English students do get good and often interesting jobs (including, sometimes, that of Prime Minister). But such myths are hard to dislodge once they have become entrenched, and across North America there has been a noted drop in enrollments in all Humanities programs. At McGill, at least in English, however, the decrease has been less striking. Our students persist in studying English – not to mention other subjects caricatured as equally or even more irrelevant, including Classics, which actually has had a remarkable resurgence in the last ten years. For the last few years, therefore, I’ve been holding a series of discussions with students to find out why, often in the face of parental and peer pressure, they feel a real need to study English.

What the students have told me has been illuminating and exhilarating. I of course have my own ideas of why English is important, but then I speak from what may appears a defensive position: protecting my sinecure, which in this case happens in fact to be the Molson Professor of English Language and Literature. English Professors of course think English is important! It’s what the students say that is worth listening carefully to. Why do they continue to study English or Art History in the face of opposition? Given today’s economic reality they are of course concerned with jobs, but they are also concerned about other things, including the state of the environment, global relations, world poverty, human rights. In many ways this is, as it was when Dawson approached the Montreal community, a discussion about the purpose of university education itself. Our students feel that university should not be just a technical school, teaching the skills of a specific profession which they can apply after graduation. They crave opportunities for exploration, for imaginative and critical thinking.

Universities at times have been characterized, sometimes rightly, as ivory towers, cut off from the real world, a place in which students escape from cold cruel reality for four years by studying irrelevant things. No university is like that today, and it is right that we should think frequently about the relation between the university and the world around it and find ways of articulating that relation. The relation between inside and outside is not that of opposition. At the same time, the University’s distance from society, its relative freedom from market forces (and note I say relative, because, as the story of the creation of the Molson Chair suggests, there has never been a time when universities have been free from social and economic pressures), is one of its functions in society. It serves as a place of critique, of innovation, for creative and free thinking not determined by utilitarian outcomes and service to industry. Studying English – or other languages and literatures, as well as history, philosophy, art –­ expands our minds, teaching us new ways of knowing, allowing us to see the world through others’ eyes. Such a chance to think deeply and widely, to experiment, to study worlds and ways of thinking vastly different from our own, is not a luxury for either students or society. In a world which increasingly measures success only in economic terms, it’s an urgent necessity.