English, as every elementary school student knows, is not only the language most of us speak here in the United States, but also a subject, alongside math and science in the curriculum.
Just like history metamorphosed into “social studies” at one point, English lessons can sometimes go by another name, such as language arts.
But the intention remains the same: to learn to read, write and speak the language correctly, as well as to read literature in English that promotes these objectives.
However, English as a subject does not date back as far as one might think.
At one time, the high level literature, the one that one was supposed to study and cite, was all of the classical variety – that is, it was all Greek and Roman.
Nor did you learn it in translation. Educated students had to learn Greek and Latin, in order to read Plato and Virgil in their native language.
The birth of English as an academic discipline happened, ironically, outside of England. It all started in Scotland, at the University of Edinburgh, where Adam Smith began teaching English as a way to understand the culture of the burgeoning empire.
If Smith’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s considered the father of modern economics: his book, “The Wealth of Nations,” basically laid out the case for capitalism and we don’t have never looked back, except for a handful of recalcitrant Marxists.
If it seems ironic that the king of economics also spawned the English department, two disciplines that rarely intersect in modern college courses, well, Smith didn’t think so.
In fact, Smith argued that the study of literature was paramount to instilling an appropriate framework of empathy and moral fortitude in those captains of industry who greased the wheels of economic growth.
Without literature, Smith said, to show us our common humanity and moral standards, capitalism was too prone to be abused by selfish types who might take advantage of others.
A look at the growing income gap and corporate cultures of modern America shows that we haven’t listened to Smith.
English classes are seen as unnecessary by utilitarian types who see college as nothing more than preparation for work. Few business school graduates take more than the required introductory English courses.
And then they come out to be rapacious destroyers of society like so many illiterate savages before them.
Growing secularism has taken morality out of everyday business life (not that such things didn’t happen in the Golden Age, of course). Great literature could at least try to fill the void, if we let it.
If we are to prevent our corporate culture from becoming a moral wasteland, we need more books in the hands of our CPAs.
Stephen Milligan is editor of the Walton Tribune in Monroe.