An article posted in the New York times last weekend titled “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” discusses the waning popularity of English as a college major and the decline of appreciation for the art of writing by the general population. The article claims that people are pursuing degrees in anticipation of careers that bring about more instant gratification in the paycheck department. Of course, I don’t blame someone for making that choice. What makes me happy is not the same as for everyone else. But personally, I am quite proud of my status as an English major as well as my possession of a Master’s degree in the same subject. I wouldn’t change what I studied in school for anything else in the world (least of all, for money) and I find the waning appreciation for English and those of us who choose to study the art of reading, writing and analysis to be very disheartening and I grieve for mankind just a little bit.
As the author of the New York Times article states, it is sad that the world does not seem to appreciate the humanities for what they are, the richness they bring and the importance of the skills they teach. My skills at writing, analyzing and comprehending—which I learned in pursuit of my English degrees—are what have led to my current success. It may not lead to a paycheck with 10 zeroes, but that is not what I want out of life (as previously stated). Instead, I search for beauty, for joy and connections.
People fail to comprehend all of the ways that studying literature and writing come into play in the world. I can tell you that I have edited dozens of papers for individuals pursuing degrees in business. I can also confidently say that if it weren’t for me, my ex-boyfriend would never have been considered a good writer. I edited every single paper he wrote for his BA and his MBA. I have helped people beyond the business school realm too. I have edited for friends pursuing M.S. degrees in Psychology, EDDs, and M.F.As in textiles.
If you are not yet convinced of the importance of English majors, the use of an English major does not end in academia. I know that as an English major who works in the business world I am a bit of a rarity. But if you look, you can find English majors everywhere. They are writing manuals and press releases, they work in business and many other fields. I have written resumes and cover letters for people and drafted content for entire websites. I have helped friends title art projects and shows, written slogans for their business pursuits, and even drafted contracts. The possibilities are endless, although at times you have to be a little creative.
I don’t say all of this to brag about my willingness to help others or to express the versatility of my skill set. Nor am I trying to suggest that I am superior to others—for certainly, I am not. Studying those fields or pursuing any of the above projects would be very challenging if not impossible for me and if I weren’t writing/editing, I wouldn’t have much else to offer to society. Instead, I remark on my work as an editor and a facilitator of the writing and pursuits of others because of the importance of having good writing skills and of the many ways that I have found for an English major to fit into and contribute to the world at large. I love helping people learn to write, or at least to write better and I love writing for people. And while some people understand the importance of writing well, the majority of people in the world take writing and lucid communication for granted.
I will say that when I was in school, people were always asking me what in the world I was going to do with an English degree. And the most consistent suggestion I received from people who asked this was to be a teacher. I have a huge respect for teachers, but that was not the route that I wanted to go. I think I was the only person in my Master’s program who did not go on to a PHD program or have the desire to go into teaching. When I would express my hopes of doing something different, rarely would people have any other idea of what I could do with myself after I left school.
I’m sure these well-intentioned people were concerned about my potential for finding a job in the future with two English degrees under my belt. And believe me, as I waded through the depressing depths of the recession, jobless and dangling over the edge of hopelessness, I began to doubt myself and my potential too. But in the end, I found where I was supposed to be.
Being an English major is much more than just having a degree, having read tons of books, discussing and analyzing things ad nauseum and learning how to write with a flourish and a style that is my own. Being an English major is ingrained in who I am as a human being. The way I look at the world is influenced heavily by my love of literature, of writing. I am constantly in search of beauty in the written word (in my own writing and in the writing of others) and in life. Because I am an English major, even the concept of beauty has grown to have multiple layers, meanings and manifestations. Beauty goes beyond the physical and is a form of art all its own. These are not things that I would have discovered had it not been for the education and guidance I received while in pursuit of my English degrees. I believe that I would still have felt them, but I would not have known what they were. Nor would I have had the ability to express and give life to them properly.
So, as I watch the procession of fewer and fewer English major colleagues exiting campuses across the country, I will sit here and I will wear my English major-dom with pride and I will hope that someday, others in the world will rediscover the significance of not just English or literary studies, but all of the humanities. For at the heart of humanities (to be a little cliché) is what makes us human. If you have ever studied critical theory, or perhaps taken a philosophy class you may be familiar with one of the first debates of the ancient critics. I believe it was Horace who wrote about the purpose of poetry (and poetry can stand for numerous other artistic entities, pursuits and the humanities). And what was the purpose of poetry, he mused, to teach or to delight? Personally, I think it’s both and so much more.