When people find out I majored in English they automatically assume that means I am a terrific speller. I’m actually terrible at it and, just to clarify, being an English major does not mean I spent four years of college doing spelling and grammar tests. No. English majors study big, important topics. We learn why T.S. Eliot thought modern poetry must be difficult, we know how colonialism shaped the culture of nations, we deliberate over how meaning is derived from language, we look deeply into sexual and racial identity, and we ponder metaphysical conundrums. In short, English majors fathom the depths of humanity’s soul and then write beautifully crafted essays and poetry to explain it to everyone else. You’re welcome.
During my freshmen year of college I took the required Phycology 101 seminar and the professor used to say fondly, “the best part about a liberal arts education is that you will get more jokes.” Liberal arts teaches an understanding of the world that crosses all disciplines. I would argue that is especially true for English majors. English majors understand nuance. We get irony. We see subtlety. We can write. We pay attention to detail. We think critically. We have a solid working knowledge of things like psychology, mythology, anthropology, sociology, religion, education, politics, communication, history, fine art, and logic. That describes just about every job from President to priest, to journalist, to lawyer, to secret agent.
Nevertheless, English majors are oft considered the suburban pond scum of a wealthy nation. Every over-indulged child who goes to a liberal arts college “just for the experience” majors in something like English or art history. Perhaps we deserve that reputation. It is true that a lot of English majors slide through taking fluff classes. On the other hand, as we all know, every business major or pre-med student on the face of the earth is incredibly talented, driven, and serious. If you detected a note of bitter satire in that last sentence, thank your useless high school English teacher.
There is such a thing as a “real” English major. A real English major is someone who approaches literature as a serious discipline, something challenging, complex, evolving, and, above all else, mesmerizing. Those rare English majors need to have chops. Theirs is a subject interminably broad, infinitely complex, and of great importance. Their subject matter can be just as challenging as any anatomy, chemistry, or math class. It only gets more challenging after college because English majors face a very tough job market that doesn’t truly understand what it is that English majors do or how multitalented they are. It’s sobering to know that, statistically, an English major will never do better than lower-middle class. One needs to be brave to forgo financial security and the respect that comes from a more prestigious profession to enter the field just because they love it.
There is a question that all English majors are well acquainted with: “what are you going to do with your major?” People ask us this all the time and then just answer for us with a “be a teacher?” My answer is “I don’t know” but would that be so bad? Ever see the youtube clip of Taylor Mali on what teachers make? There is no shame in wanting to make a difference or in having the gumption to do so. Besides, I’m a twenty-something year old. I’ve got some time to figure it out. In this economy, who does have it all figured out? Unless you’re going to become a doctor or an engineer, most people these days will have a difficult time sliding into a job right out of college anyway.
Maybe our parents and mentors should have done a better job of warning us. Maybe we were foolish to major in something flippant. Maybe both. We can’t entirely fault our parents’ generation just because they told us to follow our dreams and damn the consequences, although it was terribly irresponsible advice. Finger pointing aside, I don’t think many people really regret their college education, even if they don’t find a job in their field right away. I certainly don’t. Besides, this is only Act I. of our post-college farce. It’s far too early to predict a tragic ending. As every English major knows, the best dramas are those that rarely confine themselves to expectation. Every coming-of-age tale requires sacrifice and struggle before the protagonist can emerge victorious and stronger than before. Hold your heads high, fellow English majors. There’s a happy ending coming yet.
If you’re interested in reading more, check out this great article from the Huffington Post, entitled “In Defense of the ‘Impractical English Major.”