Starfruit and the Humanities



I ate my first starfruit today. It tasted like an apple.  Not knowing how to eat it, I munched on the wings.  There’s a core inside!  Well, it’s actually seeds.

I had long intended to try starfruit.

I wanted some other exotic fruit, too, like dragonfruit.

I decided to go to the Hy-Vee to buy fruit.  It has been very hot, and fruit seemed the thing.   I ride my bike every day unless it’s ridiculously hot, like 100 degrees (it was only 90), and the Hy-Vee was a destination. I carried a huge knapsack, because I know from experience that fruit, like Chinese food and deli coleslaw, explodes in my bike pannier.

"Proserpine" by Dante Gabriel Rpssetti

“Proserpine” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The “new” Hy-Vee is acres and acres of food.  It was built to compete with Whole Foods, which moved in a year ago. I meant to buy dragonfruit, but picked up plums and a pomegranate instead.  The pomegranates remind me of Persephone, the goddess who spends six months a year in the Underworld because she ate pomegranate seeds there after Hades abducted her.  She’s out now, by the way:  it’s summer.

Do not eat pomegranate seeds!

The Hy-Vee can be overwhelming.  I passed the Asian food station, Starbucks, the bakery, and the beautiful fresh fish.  No, No!   The idea was to get out of there without spending a fortune.   But then I bought expensive shampoo, and I almost bought Vitabath.  A bubble bath!  How wonderful in this weather.

It was hot, my knapsack stuck to my back as I rode, I stopped to admire Bounnak Thammavong’s fish sculpture in a park, I rode through construction on Washington, I made it up the big hill, the branch library was closed, and finally I was home.

THE HUMANITIES. This summer, many essays have been published in newspapers and magazines on the demise of the Humanities major.

Happens every year, doesn’t it?  Something to work us up.

I am, however, calm from bicycling.

A new report from The American Academy of Arts and Sciences says that college students are choosing vocational majors rather than majoring in the liberal arts.  Verlyn Klinkenborg in The New York Times says,

In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply.

Only 16 English majors graduated this year at Klinkenborg’s alma mater, Pomona College, where the most popular majors were economics and mathematics. Among Yale graduates in 2013, the most popular majors were economics and political science.

Some of us have seen this coming. People are too plugged-in:  even Gary Shteyngart says he’s not reading as much as he used to.  On the rare occasions when I take the bus rather than bicycle,  almost everybody is plugged into a phone.  A teacher friend tells me no one is majoring in English. “Business majors, engineering… It’s a f—–g trade school,.”

It is fashionable to pretend that literature won’t make you a better person. I say it can at least make you look at life form a different angle.  Take Aeneas, the exhausted middle-aged hero of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Why was he so querulous?  It is his fate (the gods tell him this again and again) to lead Trojan refugees to Italy to  found Rome when all he he wants is a domestic life.  All he is given is pietas (duty to the gods, country, and family).

Sounds like American life, doesn’t it?

I am  schoolmarmish when it comes to the study of Humanities. I majored in School of Letters (a major that no longer exists), a combination of English classes, literature in translation, and the study of two languages.  Could I have read English lit on my own?  Yes. But could I have studied classical languages?  NO.  The study of classics, which I continued in graduate school, was life-changing.

Lee Siegel in The Wall Street Journal saysit is absurd to think humanities majors “recognize truth, beauty and goodness.” He doesn’t think the demise of humanities majors is the end of the world.  He adds, “These solemn anxieties are grand, lofty, civic-minded, admirably virtuous and virtuously admirable. They are also a sentimental fantasy.”

Naturally, I disagree.  “Sentimental fantasy?” I’m too weary to take that on.

Adam Gopnik wrote a fascinating response to the Academy Report, “Why Teach English?”,  in The New Yorker’s blog.  

I loved my education.

No regrets!

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