English, as every grade schooler knows, is not just the language most of us speak here in these United States, but also a subject, right there alongside math and science in the curriculum.
Much like history metamorphosed into “social studies” at some point, English classes may go by another name at times, such as language arts.
But the intent remains the same: learn to properly read, write and speak the language, as well as read literature in English that furthers those aims.
English as a subject doesn’t go back as far as we might think, though.
At one time, literature of the high sort, the type one was meant to study and quote, was all of the Classics variety — that is to say, it was all Greek and Roman.
You didn’t learn it in translation, either. Educated students were expected to learn Greek and Latin, so as to read Plato and Virgil in their original tongues.
The birth of English as an academic discipline happened, ironically, outside of England. It started in Scotland, at the University of Edinburgh, where Adam Smith started teaching English as a way to understand the culture of the burgeoning empire.
If Smith’s name sounds familair, it’s because he’s considered the father of modern economics: his book, “The Wealth of Nations,” essentially laid out the case for capitalism and we’ve never looked back, outside of a handful of recalcitrant Marxists.
If it seems ironic that the king of economics also birthed the English department, two discplines that rarely cross in modern university courses, well, Smith didn’t think so.
In fact, Smith argued that studying literature was paramount to instilling a proper framework of empathy and moral fortitude in those captains of industry that greased the wheels of economic growth.
Without literature, Smith said, to show us our common humanity and moral standards, capitalism was too prone to abuse by self-serving types who might take advantage of others.
One look at the widening income gap and corporate cultures of modern America shows we haven’t listened to Smith.
English class is seen as useless by utilitarian types who see college as nothing more than workplace prep. Few business school grads take more than the required English intro courses.
And then they go out to be rapacious destroyers of society like so many unlettered savages before them.
Growing secularism has removed morality from daily business life (not that such things didn’t happen back in the Gilded Age, of course). Great literaute could at least try and fill the gap, if we let it.
If we are to prevent our business culture from becoming a moral wasteland, we need more books in the hands of our CPAs.
Stephen Milligan is news editor of The Walton Tribune in Monroe.