Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Danville, Montour County
Born in Danville, award-winning James Engell is currently the Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.
Born in Danville, Pennsylvania, James Engell is the Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and explores the role of the humanities in education, among several other topics. He has authored and edited several academic books and articles, and lectures regularly on topics such as environmental education, sustainability, and the economics of higher education.
James Engell was born in 1951 in Danville, Pennsylvania, to Jacob Engell, an insurance executive, and Ruth Louise Engell, a teacher. As a young adult, he attended Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude in 1973. He continued his studies at Harvard and earned his PhD in 1978. Subsequently he took a position as an Assistant Professor of English & American Literature at Harvard in 1978, and was later promoted to Associate Professor. He married Ainslie Sheridan Brennan, a writer and horse breeder, in 1984, and the couple has two children.
In 1981, Engell’s first published book, The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism (1981), received the Thomas Wilson Prize from Harvard University Press. Among his numerous awards and honors are a Dexter Travelling Fellowship (1977), the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize (1995), and a Doctor of Letters Honorary Degree from Sewanee: The University of the South (2016).
Engell has published on topics such as English literature from 1660 to 1830, comparative Romanticism, criticism and critical theory, and German literature from 1750 to 1830. Engell and colleague Anthony Dangerfield spent two years studying the relationship between modern university economics and the role of humanities in higher education programs, and later co-authored Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (2005). They discuss what they call a “Market-Model University” in which programs that generate money for a university are given priority over other programs, such as the humanities. According to their study, “since the late 1960s the humanities have been neglected, downgraded, and forced to retrench, all as other areas of higher education have grown in numbers, wealth, and influence.” These observations have led many universities to evaluate the role of the humanities in education.
“If you’re thinking about going to college,” Engell advises during an interview with PlanetWaves.FM’s host, Eric Francis Coppolino, “don’t just listen to rumors about what the best and worse places are. Do the homework on your own. … Don’t think about reputation of a place, as much as you think about what is a good fit for me. What is the place where I will feel challenged, but not completely overwhelmed. What is a place where I will feel excited by the people I meet, not just comfortable with them but genuinely excited, and what is a place where my interests can not only be served but where my interests might grow and multiply. … Most of all, think about what you care about. Think about trying to achieve, not just a single goal of ‘I’m going to get this job or that job,’ but I’m going to go to college in order to broaden myself, to get some skills, to investigate different things, to remain open to experience. …”
In addition to serving several administrative roles, Engell chaired Harvard’s Department of English in 2004-2010 and was also the Director of the department’s Undergraduate Studies in 2015-2016.
Today James Engell is the Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, serves on the Committee on Degrees in History & Literature, and is a Faculty Associate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment. He has authored and edited several academic books and articles, and lectures regularly on topics such as environmental education, sustainability, and higher education.
“Climate change,” he says in a video for Harvard Speaks on Climate Change, “is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the entire human race today. … All of us make a mistake if we think that someone else is going to take care of it. Because the scientists alone can’t take care of it. … …[the humanities] are involved in human value, human questions, the debate about values. I think the humanities are able to enter into dialogue and conversation and communication about this issue. … A lot of these artists, a lot of the people we call humanists or artists or journalists, are individuals who are kind of sentinels. They’re kind of like the anxious deer at the edge of the herd. Being a sentinel is important for the health and wellbeing of the whole herd.”
The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
(With Samuel Taylor Colerdige and Jackson Bate, editors.) Biographia Literaria. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
(Editor.) Johnson and His Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
(With David Perkins, editors.) Teaching Literature: What Is Needed Now. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Forming the Critical Mind: Dryden to Coleridge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
The Committed Word: Literature and Public Values. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
(Editor.) Coleridge: The Early Family Letter. New York: Oxford University, 1994.
(With Anthony Dangerfield.) Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2005.
(With Glenn Adelson, Brent Ranalli, K. P. Van Anglen, editors.) Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
President and Fellows of Harvard College. “James Engell: Gurney Professor of English Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature.” Harvard Speakson Climate Change (Harvard University Center for the Environment). 2016. 17 October 2017. <https://climatechange.environment.harvard.edu/james-engell>.