In Support of the Apostrophe and the Humanities
I am writing in support of the poor, abused apostrophe. I’ve resisted speaking up for the little bugger for several years now, because I’ve been told I could be accused of grammatical elitism. It is true that I received my education from two prestigious universities, but believe me, neither one uses me in their promotional materials. I have not discovered a cure for cancer. Nor have I written a Pulitzer-winning tome or become the CEO of a global entity. I cannot boast of the kind of genius shared by my fellow alumni T.S. Eliot or Gertrude Stein or Henry David Thoreau or even Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, I know how to properly place an apostrophe and truth be told, I didn’t learn this skill in an ivy-covered building. I learned it from Miss Crossetto in my third grade classroom. I learned it again in fourth grade and in fifth and sixth. Doesn’t everyone?
Look around your town. The apostrophe is suddenly everywhere. There is a new sign in the window of a restaurant near my home that reads, “Every Tuesday Kid’s Eat Free.” The menu at the local deli lists twenty different kinds of bagel’s. In each of these cases the apostrophe is unnecessary and, in fact, turns a simple plural word into a possessive. In my world this is an egregious error, so I took it upon myself to politely and quietly point out the error to the English-speaking manager of the restaurant. I suggested he might want to correct the sign. He listened respectfully, then showed me the door. Before it closed behind me I was able to hear the staff laughing and deriding me for being a bitch.
I probably should have kept my mouth shut. My children, who have been the recipients of many a grammar rant, would have wanted me to cease and desist. But I wasn’t carrying on about a split infinitive or a dangling participle. I split and dangle myself on occasion. An apostrophe is a different matter entirely. Only non-English speaking residents have an excuse for using it incorrectly. Perhaps I deserved the derision of the restaurant staffers that day, but the fact remains that widespread abuse of the apostrophe is just a symptom of a culture that no longer embraces language or the liberal arts as the foundation of all intellectual thought, and it makes me sad.
Information I gathered from The National Center for Education Statistics shows that business is far and away the most popular major in US colleges today. In 2007 for example, of the 1,524,000 bachelor’s degrees conferred, 328,000 were in the field of business. That is double the number of degrees conferred in the social sciences or history (164,000). The number of majors in the field of recreation and fitness, a major that didn’t exist 30 years ago, has increased by leaps and bounds. There are now 22, 888 students majoring in this field, a number that far surpasses the study of foreign language, literature, philosophy, religious studies, and several of the social sciences.
It is easy to explain the trend. In times of high joblessness students want more than ever to be marketable to employers. For several years prior to this recession the corporate world had been able to absorb hundreds of thousands of young workers at higher pay than those workers could earn elsewhere. And we had become a consumer society. Careers in business afforded hoards of young people the opportunity to drive expensive cars, load up on state-of-the-art electronics, and generally live money-driven lives. It remains to be seen whether the new reality of belt-tightening and uncertainty will cause an upswing in the number of students declaring liberal arts majors. If there’s no hope of getting a job after graduation even if you majored in business, you might as well major in something you find more interesting, right? The apostrophe and I hope so.
As a parent, I have been a broken record about the value of a humanities education. Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write, no matter your ultimate career objective. A person who can write a clear, concise sentence is valuable in any work environment. It makes sense that someone who can analyze and synthesize written information in a world overloaded with information is an asset to society.
David Brooks, op-ed contributor to The New York Times, (a conservative, yes, but a reasonable one who can make a cogent argument due to his liberal arts education), claims that studying the humanities provides you with analogies and people think by using comparison. “Iraq is either like Vietnam or Bosnia…your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. If you go through college without reading the great writers and thinkers you will have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.”
Obviously, this is not to say that there is no value in math or science or business. As a country we risk falling woefully behind in scientific innovation if we don’t encourage scientific inquiry. I simply believe that an education focusing on these fields of endeavor to the exclusion of the liberal arts is an incomplete education.
At its core, the study of humanities is about people: what we think, how we act, how we tame the beasts inside of us, how we rule, and how we love. A liberal arts education shrinks our world by helping us understand what is foreign to us, yet at the same it expands our world beyond measure by introducing us to rare and brilliant people who lived centuries before us. We can only become richer by spending time in their company.
In the shameless self-promotion department, my first novel has just been released. You can purchase Life, Death, and Doughnuts on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or anywhere books are sold. This is a book for women readers. Thank you.
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