Confessions of a liberal-arts grazer
By contemporary standards I am not extensively educated, with a mere BA and not a second's worth of graduate school. And yet—or possibly for that very reason—it was with great sadness that I read in the press of the precipitous decline in prestige and enrollments of the classic liberal arts curriculum. In a time of economic contraction, rocketing tuitions, and techno-triumphalism, the utility value of such studies seems negligible.
I certainly sympathize with today's cash-strapped, recession-beset students. But while "utility value" was not a phrase that ever crossed the lips of my English lit cohorts back in the day—they talked like that in the alien precincts of the economics department—I can testify that my impractical, free-range romp across the liberal arts has served me beautifully in my chosen profession as a book editor. For thirty-three years now I have drawn on the intellectual riches on offer (and to lowly undergraduates at that) as a resource to guide me in the glorious-yet-frustrating pursuit of bringing the better class of books into the marketplace.
That wasn't the plan. (What's a "plan"?) I arrived in Ithaca with the intention of majoring in biology, the product of a post-Sputnik course load in my academically demanding Catholic high school, heavy on math and science, and the influence of a charismatic biology teacher. Reading took care of itself as, book-besotted, I had read my way through the holdings of the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library like a starving termite. And I did well in Bio 101, the introductory course taught by the legendary William Keeton, PhD '58. But my intellectual Waterloo, at least as far as the sciences were concerned, came in the intro chem course. Accustomed to a place at the head of the class, I was suddenly plunged into a shark pool of feral, fiercely motivated premeds and spooky-smart engineers. This was unnerving, and soon enough, baffled by the intricacies of electron states, my cognitive limits became unmistakably clear.
Meanwhile, over in Goldwin Smith, my Introduction to Fiction class had introduced me to the fascinating and terrifying Edgar Rosenberg '49, MA '50. With his faintly European accent and arch, almost Nabokovian manner, he was a classroom presence of a sort I'd never met before. We lived to answer one of his imperiously posed questions in a way that would elicit a grunt of satisfaction rather than an impatient and devastating toss of the head. Here was my first encounter with an avatar of high culture. I can still summon up the class where he had us unpacking, sentence by sentence, the allusions behind the opening pages of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"—a virtuoso piece of literary pedagogy. Faced with an unfortunate student who averred that a detail was there "for no particular reason," Rosenberg drew himself up and declaimed: "Working from the Rosenbergian dictum that nothing is in a Thomas Mann story 'for no particular reason,' let us apply ourselves to discovering what this one means, shall we?" This was the most profound "Aha" moment of my educational life. My mind made a quantum leap of the sort I could not quite manage in chem class, and suddenly I could begin to understand (just) the multiple levels on which great fiction works.
Next semester, I announced to my parents, people of modest means, that their only son was switching his major to English. This must have been disconcerting, but readers themselves, they knew they had a reader on their hands, and as my father once observed in a half-compliment, "You're a good bullshitter." So off I went on a sort of wanderjahr through the catalogue of the College of Arts and Sciences, and what I found were lasting treasures.
The seminars of Scott Elledge, PhD '44, on John Milton and on English literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries exposed me to complex poetry and prose that I was the better for grappling with. More important, Scott became that crucial teacher who saw something in me and gave encouragement to my inchoate literary ambitions. In Werner Dannhauser's introduction to political philosophy, we read the essential Western texts from Plato to Nietzsche, and because the course had been designed by the recently departed Allan Bloom, I was no doubt receiving secret infusions of Straussian thought. When, fifteen years later, Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind ignited the culture wars in higher education, I was actually able to read it and understand what Bloom was getting at.
My peak academic experience took place in Walter LaFeber's celebrated two-semester lecture course on the history of American foreign relations. I could feel the Cold War scales falling from my eyes as he delivered his acute revisionist accounts of the uses and abuses of American power; like German university students, we would often stand and applaud at the end of a lecture. As the syllabus reached our tragic Indochina misadventure in the spring of 1970, just as Nixon ordered the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, the final lectures in a packed-to-the-rafters Bailey Hall were transformed into a university-wide teach-in on our national hubris and folly. Our hunger to learn and understand was so intense that I can never take seriously the characterizations of the Sixties as "anti-intellectual."
Masterpieces of European Literature. Art History of the Renaissance and Baroque. Survey of American Literature. Twentieth Century Intellectual History. (Civilization is made possible by our discontent? Crazy people are saner than sane people? Huh?) Major Dramatic Works of the Twentieth Century. The forced march through the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Another fascinating/terrifying course of Rosenbergian dicta, applied to the works of Stendahl, Mann, and Dickens. These and many other classes I took for no reason I could articulate beyond the sense that there was something in them that I needed. And they met in the afternoon.
I am reluctant to tell an undergraduate to go forth and do as I did. The world today is so much more expensive and so much less forgiving than the one I inhabited. When I graduated in that dismal year 1972, I had no idea what I might do with myself except maybe look for a job in publishing. Publishing has been called the accidental profession; I was an accident waiting to happen. And rather too long— I went about my search in such half-assed fashion that I made a miserable two-year detour into advertising. I took the GRE and did well enough to be accepted at the University of Chicago in American studies. Just at that time, a copywriting job opened up in a college textbook department; I took a deep breath, waved the U. of C. goodbye, and life began. My walk-about through the college curriculum stood me in good stead as I learned the surprisingly difficult craft of writing clear, grammatical copy on all manner of subjects I knew little about. Like economics. And the familiarity I gained with the college textbook market came in handy when, a couple of years later, I fast-talked my way into a job as an assistant editor at New American Library. Life really began, and for three-plus decades now I've conducted my continuing education on my employer's nickel—a fair bargain, I'd like to think, on both sides.
I've been fortunate in my career, and not a day goes by that I don't draw on the intellectual resources I began to develop at Cornell. I've edited books by some of our finest novelists, by renowned scholars, by prize-winning journalists and critics, by a couple of world-famous celebrities—and even a book-length poem by A. R. Ammons, who used to hold caffeineated court in the Temple of Zeus coffee house. I had the privilege of publishing the translation of The Divine Comedy by Robert Hollander, perhaps the greatest Dante scholar on earth, and Jean Hollander. The editing of Bob Dylan in America by the superb historian (and Dylan fanboy) Sean Wilentz was a course in American studies to die for. I encouraged Jay Parini to write his wonderful Melville novel, The Passages of H. M., because I encountered Melville's transcendent letters to Hawthorne in my American lit course and have never recovered from the shock of recognition. I've been able to recapitulate and enrich my liberal arts education in my career, with a paycheck attached. I've seen in the most intimate yet practical terms imaginable how great writing and ideas live and thrive and sometimes expire in our culture—a spectacle that never fails to fascinate.
I am reluctant to tell an undergraduate to go forth and do as I did. The world today is so much more expensive and so much less forgiving than the one I inhabited. My particular profession is unlikely to survive the digital revolution in anything like the form I practiced it. In truth, some actual forethought would have smoothed and accelerated my career path. If luck is the residue of planning, I have no idea where my luck came from. I offer this testimony merely as one example of how the passionately disinterested pursuit of knowledge still afforded by a college education can pay dividends down the years in wonderfully unexpected ways. You might end up with a more interesting life than you imagined for yourself. You just might get away with it.
— Gerald Howard '72
Gerald Howard is an executive editor at Doubleday.