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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Column: Common sense

Mr. Vrdoljak,

In your unsolicited guest opinion, you claim that my article about the English major “lacks any modicum of support.”

As an English major who has personally immersed himself in English and experienced the sociocultural biases against it, I completely and respectfully disagree.
Your hard-hitting analysis was mildly credible for about 10 seconds, until your second paragraph, when you wrote:
“It is bad and you should feel bad.”
Really.
All right.
Churlishness is not the way to lead off an argument, and alluding to the Nazi Party (“the master-race of English majors”) is not the way to salvage it.
You proceed to question the competitive nature of English. Fair enough. In your admirable haste to prove me wrong, you assert: “A: Grading in the English department is subjective, therefore B: studying English is conducive to strong academic performance. B does not follow from A.”
My assertion requires logical interpretation, but it’s hardly a non-sequitur.
Subjective grading stems from a free-form curriculum emphasizing individual performance. Science is tough, and curves are fickle, forcing students to root for complete strangers to fall on their asses. Curves in English classes are relatively rare, and an environment offering greater flexibility and individual focus is always nice to have.
As an upstanding geology major, you have credibility when you spend two paragraphs extolling the virtues of math and science. You say “as a science major I find myself filled with a passionate curiosity about the world,” and that’s absolutely terrific. My argument never denigrated another field from a position of ignorance.
If you had read my article, you would have seen that I wrote: “I don’t take a critical stance against science majors by saying their field is predicated on nothing but rote memorization and mindless regurgitation, because thinking critically is also an important aspect of being a science major.”
Although I don’t actually detail the other merits of math and science, it’s clear I’m not an elitist advocating for supremacy.
But you don’t seem to get that, as you contend “[my] article reeks of desperate insecurity in [my] choice of majors.”
Discourse on insecurity was the point of my article, as I endeavored to analyze the stigma against the English major and explain why the prevailing stereotypes don’t hold true. In reality, my argument is one slanted toward equality among majors, not one based on an elitist dream.
And you claim I “easily discard the entire field of statistics” to ease my jealousy, but that’s also untrue. My point regarding statistics was that they’re less reliable and absolute than people would have you believe. During the presidential campaign, Romney claimed that gas prices doubled over the course of the Obama administration. Technically true. Gas was at $1.84 in January 2009. But that statistic disregards the economic crash that contributed to depressed prices, as well as the subsequent recovery.
Statistics matter, but only in proper context, like in evaluating the percentage of your argument that doesn’t depend on distorting my words and ideas.
However, you don’t stop at just distorting my words and ideas. You also have an unfortunate tendency of distorting your own, compromising the quality of your reasoning and the integrity of your arguments.
You implored me to persuade people “with maturity and eloquence,” while also stating “people sometimes jump to conclusions” and “I do not place judgment on anyone for studying English.”
All admirable sentiments, but not when juxtaposed with your entire argument, where you do nothing but judge and jump to conclusions while eschewing maturity and eloquence to your own detriment. Escape clauses to the high road are illogical. Then again, your argument doesn’t appear to care for logic. It is, as you say, “a more parsimonious argument,” predicated on frugalities of professionalism and relevant ideas.
Occam’s razor is by no means infallible, as the simplest arguments are often derived from preconception. Sometimes, it’s better to think broadly, think differently and acknowledge that other people might know something you don’t. But if you prefer peddling short-sighted misconceptions and dispensing toxic egotism, then go right ahead.

Just don’t be surprised when people respond as they should.

BEN CHANG will respond to your opinions at bcchang@ucdavis.edu. 

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