English majors are the coolest people. I'm going to explain why. If you're considering being an English major, read on. If you pity English majors, a) no, and b) read on. If you're a down-on-your-luck former English major, read on.
A few days ago, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote an article in the New York Times called The Decline and Fall of the English Major. The starkness of that title's position pulls from the shocking numbers the author lays out: apparently, no one's majoring in English anymore.
One thing struck me as a bit odd. Klinkenborg never really argues why English degrees are valuable. Yes yes, writing is important, but most undergraduate degrees require lots of writing.
When I was a young, bushy-tailed English major, I helped build and then run my university's writing lab, called the Writers' Studio. Basically, it was a therapy office for college writers from all walks. They'd come in, at any stage of their writing assignment, and just talk about it. We'd simply talk about writing. We peer tutors were there to get these students excited about their topics, show them that they did, in fact, have something to say, and send them on their way, pumped and jumping freeze-framed into the air, fist up like at the end of a montage.
English majors weren't the only folks coming into the Writers' Studio with long papers. Everyone writes in college. Everyone must learn to communicate with their peers and, hopefully, with those in different disciplines. That's kind of the point of undergraduate work, so I'm disappointed that "we need good writers" was the lengthiest defense Klinkenborg offered.
There's just so, so much more. And he touched on it, but it was a bit stashed away:
Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.
This, this, a million times this. But there's still more to it, something he's missing.
Why English majors are the whole package
I just finished a book called As She Climbed Across the Table, which is about a humanities man in love with a physicist. The physicist falls in love, instead, with what basically amounts to a black hole named Lack. Meanwhile, the university at which this takes place is trying to understand Lack, and what he is. The physicists are at a loss. So they bring in an literature deconstructionist guy.
This quote stuck with me.
Meaning accrues in unexpected places. And drains unexpectedly out of others. Your physics, for example, has proven inefficient.
You see, when a person studies literature (or history or philosophy), she is studying meaning. She is learning, absorbing problems, discovering new ways to stretch her mind and understand other perspectives. Arguably, she is broadening her empathy and ability to understand systems.
Sure, her reading comprehension goes through the roof like a boss, and hopefully she's a pretty talented, or at least efficient, writer. But it's those other things, the thinking things, that matter.
Comprehension and communication are just symptoms of clear or effective thinking.
And what could possibly be better than a clear communicator and an effective thinker? English majors are problem solvers who know how to ask the right questions. They find holes in logic and argument, and see patterns in human behavior (on and off the page). They like to learn, and read, and debate. They take criticism with class, and know how to constructively critique others.
Basically, English majors are taught to be intelligent contributors. They start and foster conversation. And they have the building blocks to work in almost any field.
To those considering the Fall
If you think studying business is going to ensure your degree pays for itself, I'm afraid I have some bad news: it probably won't. Everyone and her brother has a business degree these days.
Study chemistry for 4 years, you're not going to be a chemist yet. Study business for 4 years, you may run a business, but you could've done that learning on your own. Study economics for 4 years, you're not an economist yet. Study philosophy for 4 years...well, actually, that's pretty cool.
You see what I'm getting at. If by earning a Bachelor's degree you're looking for a surefire way into the job market, you'll be disappointed. That bachelor's degree you have—the actual thing— will accomplish only one thing in your job search: it's a quick checked-off item on an employer's checklist. They typically don't care about your studies, and almost certainly won't ask about your keystone project or thesis. But they want college graduates.
Will an English degree be a Golden Ticket? No, and neither will any other degree. However, an English degree is so protean, you can make it look like anything you want. It's like the Gak of degrees: you can shape it and squeeze it and throw it against a wall to watch it stick. Or you can sit around making fart noises with it. Your choice.
But you better believe that the single most consistent thing you'll find later on job requirement lists is some iteration of this: Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
Oh, and employers like thinkers, too. Consider getting a degree in thinking.
We are just like you. We are among you.
When I learn someone was an English major—most recently a web developer and a UX designer come to mind—I kind of just fall in love immediately. Because, and I'm going to be crass for a second, it takes a lot of balls to be an English major.
Everyone tells you you'll amount to nothing. They may say "Oh, so you want to teach?" or other presumptious things. No, jerk. I don't want to teach (you're seeing a bit of my baggage here, I admit). You tell someone you're an English major, expect a charming onslaught of pity, confusion, and a generalized SMH mentality.
Well guess what? English majors and others in the humanities (because this goes for philosophers, historians, and social science folks too) don't need your pity. These are the people who are in school not to get a job and end up where everyone else ends up. No. Humanatatees want to learn. They want to—and gasp! even like to—think.
And people who like to think, and who challenge themselves, those are the folks who end up wherever they want. English majors are taught to learn, dissect, and understand problems.
Which is why I wasn't surprised to hear a developer tell me he was an English major. I should've known anyway by his ability to communicate in an engaging way. And that user experience guy—of course he was an English major. I knew I enjoyed our conversation. And I bet if you started asking around, you'd find far more English majors than you'd expect, doing unexpected things. Not whithering away in a ditch somewhere, asking in a Shakespearean dialect, "Why O why!? What hath I wrought?!"
None of this is to say that you have to be an English major to effectively communicate and think. Nor is it to say that other degrees are worthless. Of course they're not. But the English degree deserves a defender. Because, based on the numbers in Klinkenborg's article, those snub-nosed pityers, the naysayers, may be winning.
College is expensive, and getting out of college is scary. But if you're looking for a degree that makes you:
- A lifelong learner
- Communicate effecvitely
- A great debator
…then come join the ranks. Be an English major.
Here's another link to the Klinkenborg article that sparked this article.
Oh, and if you'd like to read the Humanities Commission report that sparked this whole discussion, it's here (big-ass PDF alert). Warning: it's filled with some hokey language (lots of "We live in a nation...").
Here's an article on Business Insider with some well known, successful English majors.