Discover more from escape velocity
putting the human in humanities
a story from my journalism studies
The New Yorker piece does a better job than others by representing actual people in the debate (professors, students, administrators), and what they have to gain or lose from the end of the English major. The main issue I have with discourse about the “decline” of the humanities is that it doesn’t lead anywhere. There’s no escape! Another decline in an endless list of declines.
Trying to pitch an English major in terms of its application to jobs seems to me—purely on intuition—like a mistake. I’m willing to be wrong. But from what I’ve seen, framing the study of literature by its employability is always going to come off a little desperate and absurd. Specializing it with jargon and accolades doesn’t help either. People don’t read books, watch films, or look at art to get a good job—or even to contribute research to a niche field. Ultimately, they do it to have a good life.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that basically everyone has an interest in the humanities. The humanities encompass the things that make being a human interesting and fun. But people also go to college knowing that they have four years to become as employable as possible. The risk of adding ambiguity to that task is simply too high.
Students may be taking the “certainty” for sale in other fields at face value. But they are also 18-to-21 years old. They’re prone to a bit of black and white thinking (I definitely had it when I was an undergrad). Plus, they’re being bludgeoned constantly with certainties—essentially advertisements—about life. “You’ll never get a job with an English degree” is just one of the ads. “You will definitely get a job with a STEM degree” is arguably another.
The only answer is that we must, systemically, lower the stakes of not having a certain level of income. It’s not so much a humanities problem as an economic problem and a class problem. As AI gets better, there will be fewer jobs in general. Eventually, we’ll be forced to contend with the fact that not every human being will be able to work to live.
Until then, we have our litany of declines, including our humanities decline. I’d like to reframe it away from apocalyptic noise, which serves to obscure the problems and devolve into cynicism. I want to find a way to focus on how daily life can be in the meantime.
So how about a story from my own life? Here’s an episode from my undergraduate journalism studies. I promise it’s related to all this.
In the fall of 2013, I had an assignment for a journalism class to interview a person over the age of 80. One of the rules was that you could not interview a family member. Our teacher wanted us to get out of our comfort zones and talk to new people. My friend said that one of her communications professors might be a good choice. When I looked him up, I realized he was actually rather famous in his field. I was intimidated, but still cold-emailed him.
The professor was Richard Heffner. He was 88 years old. Since 1956, he’d been hosting a public TV interview program on Channel 13 called The Open Mind.
Richard Heffner wrote me back—with an impressive combination of goodwill and bluntness—to say that I should rethink my choice. While he was happy to help, he was not a typical “codger,” and had been doing the same thing for 50 years. There was no “transition” for us to talk about. He did not know how to offer advice for younger people. He did not think this would make for a very interesting article.
I was surprised. Surely, this professor was one of the most interesting people over 80 on campus. From my googling, I knew that he had interviewed scores of important people in his long career. The Open Mind’s archive offers nothing less than half a century of primary sources for media and political history.
Looking back, I wonder if Heffner was simply trying to say no without offending me. A random email from an undergraduate you’ve never met—who wants to talk about your age, no less!—may have been unwelcome. But I didn't have any other ideas for my assignment. So, against etiquette, I pushed back on his claim.
And on October 30th, 2013, just before 8:30 a.m., I was waiting in an empty hallway for Richard Heffner to arrive. In a sudden breaking of the silence, a large dog bounded through the double doors and toward me. Closely behind the dog was Heffner, walking with a cane and wearing a black trench coat.
“Her name is Cassandra,” he said, the first thing he said. He gestured to the dog. “Cassie.”
When I was sitting down, preparing my recorder and notebook, Cassie immediately put her head in my lap. She was some kind of poodle mix, perhaps a Labradoodle, and elderly. I could feel her spine as I pet her.
Though Heffner taught in the communications department and had spent his career in media, he told me that he considered himself primarily a historian. We talked about whether journalism should be something you could major in. He thought journalism programs were producing people who knew little about history, philosophy, English, or anything that could help them with all of the supposed writing and broadcasting they were going to do. In his view, journalism was a trade, and people still needed to learn something to bring to their trade.
By that time I’d developed my own skepticism about journalism as an academic field. My observations aligned with his. Many of my classmates seemed to have no interest in the part of our coursework that you could actually learn. They wanted internships, mostly. (I also believed that no one could teach you to write. You just had to write.) I’d started considering myself primarily an English major.
From there we talked about his life, the history he’d witnessed, and the humanities as an academic disciple. Though I no longer have the audio of the interviews, I do have the 6,000-word transcript I made afterward. It’s full of typos and loose ends, only half legible. Strangely, I have no record of what I said. I must have only transcribed what I thought would help me in my article assignment. The result is long paragraphs of fascinating digressions (despite the typos).
This might turn out weird, but I want to include some selections from this transcript and respond to them. I’ve edited the transcript for errors and cut out non sequiturs.
Heffner: “Really, we don’t communicate with each other anymore, we try to persuade each other. I don’t try to give you information, I try to convince you of something. And that’s the vast difference. Communication becomes more a matter of propaganda than of information. And, you know, I sound like all old men. It was so much better—as my grandfather undoubtedly thought when I was a kid, that it was so much better in his day. As a historian, looking back, do I really think that things have gone downhill? Yes. And I know my own contribution to that. I had a [student] years ago—she wrote me and said we haven’t talked in a long time, let’s have lunch or something. And she was furious with me because I had cut a couple of the books out of the reading list. I had taken two out. To her, that meant I was contributing to the lowering of standards. What I said to her was, yes, I knew that. I was aware of how much less my students were willing to read than what I was when I went to Columbia College. But I didn’t want to be spitting against the wind and accomplishing nothing.”
The first sentence leapt out from the transcript at me. This has been my frustration with essay-writing—trying to unlearn the overly persuasive style. I don’t want to eliminate persuasiveness. I just don’t want the sole purpose of my writing to be persuasive.
I get the point made by Heffner’s former student, but I’m also sympathetic to professors who have to teach in front of blank faces all day. I see why a teacher might lighten the load to coax participation from a class. I was regularly in English classes where it was obvious that most of the class had not read a single page. There’s two paths you can take in that position: ignore the students who don’t read, or try to meet them where they are. I think many teachers have a respect for their profession that makes them want to at least try to engage the disengaged.
And then I think about it some more, the idea of persuasiveness. Is “persuasion” really what we mean when we worry about the state of communication? Is not “engaging the disengaged” ultimately a form of persuasion? You can’t avoid persuasiveness if you have a strong point of view. Maybe we need another word, to separate useful persuasiveness from whatever this is. Perhaps something like “advertise” or “coerce”?
Heffner: “Because I wonder… Students aren’t doing the reading… Well, the press isn’t printing the things that we should know. I don’t know whether you’ve ever read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. I have [students] read the book, to the extent that students read, and I show them a video of a program I did with Neil. My bet is that they get more out of watching that half-hour program than they do from reading the book, because they are no longer accustomed to reading and asking themselves: What are we reading? What is this? What is the title? I mean, I ask them, after they’ve read the book: Nobody’s thought about that? What the hell does he mean, ‘amusing ourselves to death’? In the program, I ask him that. I draw out of him what they’re not getting when reading. But the point is, there are not many of those programs. There are still many of those books. And they're not reading them.”
This reflection makes me think about how books are read. People don't seem to recognize that they have a role in reading, besides just deeming something good or bad. This is important, because degraded engagement with books leads to calls for killing books that are deemed “unsafe.” It’s a sort of vicious circle: because people don’t practice engaging with books, other people are worried that readers will read badly—take the wrong lesson or believe the wrong thing by reading the wrong book. But restricting books means restricting engagement, leading to fewer opportunities to practice reading well, leading to more bans... You can see why book bans are a bad, bad idea.
Heffner has suggested a role for media in this situation. If people won’t read, then media should present difficult concepts with integrity, in a robust way that generates interest and provides real information. I’m reminded of a video essay I love about NFTs and cryptocurrency by the YouTube documentarian Dan Olson, known for his channel Folding Ideas. I learned a lot from this video. Olson is a very persuasive writer and speaker. Is that a problem? Would it be better if Olson had recorded a conversation, rather than a persuasive essay?
But here’s the thing. He didn’t record a conversation. My role is not to demand that Olson replace his essay with a conversation. My role is to have the conversation.
Here is Heffner’s first program with Neil Postman, recorded on December 14, 1985. It’s amazing how their exchange about television still applies to the internet, smartphones, and now AI. Imagine how different our world would be if we had taken Postman’s advice to ban political TV ads in the 80s.
Heffner: “I suppose I shouldn’t shrug my shoulders and say that’s life, but I guess that’s life in a larger and larger community. In a sense I’m glad I'm not going to be around to see more and more [of] what happens. But I do feel it means an increasing and continuing division in our society between the ‘haves’: the intellectual haves, and the intellectual have-nots.”
It’s interesting when older people say they’re glad they won’t be around to “see what happens.” Maybe humans have a fixed amount of tolerance for time and history, which is why, at a certain point, it’s a relief to know you won’t see the future. (This could also be a good pillar of an argument for an enforced political retirement age. How can you make policies for a future you don’t believe in?)
Big questions: Do people have a right to not read, not learn, not participate? An old-fashioned sensibility about democracy would say no—it is a citizen’s responsibility to be educated. This belief seems unpopular now. I’m not sure if I agree with it. But that’s part of my goal: to figure out what I believe. If you decide to resist or desist, you should at least know why, and what the consequences of your beliefs are.
At the end of our second interview (November 13, 2013), Richard Heffner and I planned to reconnect sometime in the next semester. He offered to sign a waiver if I wanted to take his spring class, “Communications and Human Values” (which was run out of the honors program; I wasn’t an honors student). I intended to find a way to enroll.
Weeks later, the fall in New Jersey was far from my mind. I was on winter break, across the country, in my hometown. One morning, my friend—the one who recommended him for my article—called to tell me that Richard Heffner had died suddenly a few days before, on December 17th, 2013.
I felt strange and sad. I had only met Richard Heffner twice. I hadn’t told many people about meeting him, or made a record of it beyond my homework. The fleetingness of our connection was closer, in literal time, to no connection at all. Was I the last person to interview Richard Heffner? For an amateur article that no one but my teacher would ever read?
The point of the story is that this is the humanities. Talking with a much older person about media and life; thinking about it, writing about it, forgetting it, remembering it. And then maybe, ten years later, writing about it again. We will have the humanities as long as people are willing to speak to each other and remember each other. Perhaps we should focus on how to foster these values, rather than lament more superficial losses.
But does this essay have room for one final twist? While I’m happy with my conclusion, there’s still a wrinkle. What do we do when certain people—people we attempt to communicate with—have a fundamental disrespect of those values?What if they don’t care about speaking or remembering? What if they value domination and control? Pair this with policies that reward domination and control… and we have a big problem. Much easier to keep writing about the death of the English major, isn’t it?