Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote an essay in The New York Times on “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” There are many things that could be said about this essay, but I’ll be brief. I came to the essay by way of a blog post from Erik Voeten on The Monkey Cage, and it is Voeten, not Kilnkenborg, to whom I’d like to respond. Voeten quotes a simile that Kinkenborg uses:
Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.
Sentences like this usually lead me to liberally spread red ink. What do you mean? Why should studying be like observing a coastline rather than interacting with human experience? Why the clichés? And what’s that whale all about? You can sort of figure out what the author means with all the vague metaphors but “sort of being able to figure out” an argument is hardly an advertisement for clear and simple nonfiction writing.
I will note in passing the irony of Voeten making this argument on a blog that takes its title from an H.L. Mencken quotation featuring a metaphor that, in my opinion, is far more vague and “flowery” than Kinkenborg’s simile. I would also be remiss not to observe that Voeten manages to be deeply invested in clear writing instruction while seeming not to know or care about the difference between a metaphor and a simile.
What’s interesting to me is, Klingenborg’s simile has a much clearer point to it than Voeten’s criticism does. A good simile or metaphor—and I would say that Klingeborg’s simile is pretty good—can take an abstract idea and make it more concrete through analogy. The boat simile illustrates Klingenborg’s point that disciplinary specialization in the English major has led English departments to feel like a hermetic environment that is cut off from the reality that it purports to study, leading to warped perspectives. The simile might be somewhat imprecise, but I wouldn’t call it vague, and indeed, a greater degree of precision might not be appropriate for an essay commenting at this level of generality.
Voeten’s response, meanwhile, is a set of directionless and open-ended questions that would, ironically, lead me to “liberally spread red ink” (or they would if I actually graded in red ink—I find that students are more likely to read comments if they are in blue). The rhetorical questions reveal more about Voeten’s reading protocols than they do about anything inherently “vague” or “muddled” in Klingenborg’s writing.
I like similes/metaphors and I detest rhetorical questions. Voeten appears to like rhetorical questions and to detest similes/metaphors. Both of us would likely justify these matters of taste in terms of “clarity,” and a preference for “clear” writing. But really, these preferences are matters of taste, and both Voeten and I have acquired our tastes through years of reading and writing and interacting with other readers and writers.
It’s easy to forget that “clarity” is a social construct that differs across institutions, disciplines, and parts of the world. Contra Klingenborg, I don’t actually think that the humanities have become too technically narrow. If anything, they’ve become too broad, with growing interests in world literatures, cultural studies, and interdisciplinarity making it nearly impossible to develop a consensus with regard to what constitutes a “good” or “clear” writing style.
At the end of the day, I think that this broadening is a good thing, but it might mean giving up on any totalizing ideas about “teaching how to write well.” Instead, I think that writing instructors should focus on providing students with a set of rhetorical techniques that they might or might not want to employ in given circumstances (in my writing classes, I use a “toolbox” metaphor: over the course of the semester, we fill their toolbox with tools that they might or might not use later, but that they should always have at their disposal). And, given the plethora of “good” writing styles out there, I think that the humanities as a whole should be less focused on producing good writers and more focused on producing good readers who can consume different kinds of texts and understand them clearly.