I have two younger siblings in college, and many family conversations revolve around what they should choose as their majors. Everyone heaps scorn on the idea of picking English or drama or history or a language as a major. As someone who not only majored in English and Spanish, and earned an MA in fiction writing, but currently teaches both languages at the high school level, I often find some of my relatives’ sentiments insensitive at best and distressing at worst. It’s kind of hurtful for an English teacher to hear people call English class pointless. It makes me feel like an alien in my own family, that we could have such widely disparate values that they feel so little affinity for what I find most important and wonderful in life. It’s a very lonely feeling, to be so far from understood by those you love the most.
Despite my relatives’ opinions, an English major is not a death sentence to a career. Here is a list of rich and famous people who majored in English and other supposedly nonremunerative liberal arts. Here‘s an impressive list of all the skills English majors learn in school. Skills are more important than choice of major, and liberal arts study gives students exactly the “soft skills” companies want: “A survey of employers released in April by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of the respondents reported that a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems was more important than an undergraduate major.” In addition to these many skills, many hiring managers say they’re looking for people who are “well-rounded” and “multifaceted” in order to create more diversified teams at their companies. The main advantage of studying English or any liberal art is this: it doesn’t just train you for a job that will be obsolete soon anyway, it develops you into a person who will be able to adapt to changes in the workforce, so that you’re prepared not only for your first job, but for every job you’ll have over a long lifetime of work that will inevitably involve several career changes.
Yes, an English major needs a plan, but everyone needs a plan. An internship, a graduate degree (it seems everyone needs a grad program nowadays anyway), a work portfolio, even just some focused networking (which, again, everyone has to do), can fill the gap between a bachelors that isn’t very career-specific and a good job. “But then you aren’t using your education,” people might protest. Actually, as a teacher, I am, in fact, “using” my degrees in the narrow way this person means. My double major qualified me for certification in Tennessee and allowed me to ace the Praxis tests, while my MA bumped me up a step on the salary schedule. This is probably not surprising, since everyone who heard I was majoring in English assumed that teaching was the only thing I could possibly do. What might surprise this person is the fact that I am a better teacher for having majored in English and Spanish than I would be if I had known I would be a teacher at age 18 and majored in education instead. The time I spent learning my disciplines was more valuable for me and my students than the time I spent learning how to write a lesson plan.
But, much more importantly, every time I read or write a sentence, I am using my education. Every time I make or take down an argument, every time I interpret someone else’s words or actions–in my classroom, on my blog, with my friends, in my marriage, with my child–I am using my education. My English major taught me to handle ambiguity and gray areas in real life as well as in poetry, fiction, and drama. As Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” For these reasons, I remain convinced that “a useless education” is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing.
Besides, a career isn’t necessarily the most important thing in life. Maybe this is a privileged position for me to hold. My students would probably see it as ridiculous, when they’re more worried about keeping the electricity turned on at home than about carpe diem poems, or, indeed, writing coherent paragraphs. Mine is probably a position that is easier to hold in times of economic prosperity. It might have been easier to be an English major in 2004, when I declared, than it would be now. A good amount of my relatives’ feelings surely come from anxiety about staying in the middle class. A major that is more directly connected with a specific job, rather than one that serves as a foundation for lifelong learning, seems like a safer bet. I certainly understand and sympathize with these concerns. When student loans are a factor, these concerns are unfortunately multiplied. But just because a major doesn’t come with a ready-made job attached to it, doesn’t mean its students are doomed to starve. And just because a major has a clear career path doesn’t guarantee employment upon graduation, much less ten years down the road.
In fact, if every college student in the country followed my relatives’ advice and chose a “practical” major, or worse, the exact same practical major, they’d all be screwed because none of them would get jobs. So following career trends like the current vogue for STEM is pointless. That’s because:
There is no such thing as practical knowledge, and so there is no such thing as a practical major. This country graduates 350,000 business majors a year. The metrics for those degrees are generally awful. But nobody ever includes them in their arguments about impractical majors, despite those bad numbers. And if you’re some 19 year old, out to choose a career path, business sure sounds practical. So they graduate with those degrees and flood the market with identical resumes and nobody will hire them. Meanwhile, they lost the opportunity to explore fields that they might have enjoyed, that might have deepened the information acquisition and evaluation skills that would allow them to adapt to a whole host of jobs, and that might have provided a civic and moral education. All to satisfy a vision of practicality that has no connection to replicable, reliable economic advantage.
Of course, all of this talk about jobs and careers is irrelevant when most of us have deeper reasons for choosing to study English than mere careerism anyway. As my advisor at Centre College, Professor Rasmussen, who taught me about King Arthur and gave me a crash course in literary theory that allowed me to survive the most intense graduate class I’ve ever taken, told me once, English is a love major. Students choose it because they love it. End of story.
I was inspired to write this post not by some fresh instance of disrespect, or a lingering grudge, but because I have finally found not one, but two people articulating the many wonderful reasons for choosing an English major much more thoroughly and beautifully than I ever could, and I wanted to share their writing with those who care about me, in the hopes that they just might understand me better. (And I then “bribed” these loved ones to read it by providing blatant click-bait in the form of a photo of my baby, in the process of being indoctrinated in the love of literature, and waiting until the second half of the essay to display it. Here you go.)
These articles outline some of the deeper, more philosophical justifications for studying English. This first one is mostly rather cynical, but the conclusion redeems it. It’s one of the best descriptions I’ve read of why the usefulness of studying the liberal arts is so far beside the point that well-meaning questions like “What are you going to do with that?” are inane and ignorant. The liberal arts absolutely are useful, but their usefulness is irrelevant and incidental, a mere side effect. They are not meant to be useful. They’re meant to be meaningful. That’s more important than utility, not only for the English student herself, but for the world she lives in and enriches with her talent and energy. (This certainly does not mean that the humanities are the only courses of study and fields of work that are meaningful. It simply means that the purpose of the liberal arts and sciences is to find and make meaning, and that makes them unique and worthy of respect.)
“Why Teach English?” by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker
So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.
Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.
That’s a powerful argument, and one I greatly appreciate, but I think I prefer the high-falutin’ idealism of this essay. The English major, like love, like life, is more about who you are than about what you do:
Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.
What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.