Why majoring in English is (still) a great choice
The humanities in general, and English majors in particular, have been in decline for the past decade or two. A major that doesn't have an obvious job title attached to it leaves people befuddled. What's the point?
I had a similar sort of outlook when I was an undergraduate. I was a biology major (pre-med) and then I switched to geology, and graduated with a BS in that subject. I went out after graduating and got an excellent job as a staff geologist for a company that was eager to hire me. And I quit after six weeks. I hated the work.
I had done everything I was "supposed" to: I looked at my strengths and interests, and followed the money. I was practical, ambitious and smart. But I lacked what most young people lack: The ability to understand who you really are and what you truly want to do with the days of your life. Thank goodness I had the foresight — and ignored my grandmother's and father's suggestions to the contrary — and got a BA in English at the same time as my BS. I will never be more grateful for a decision than the one that led me to double-major.
While I will never regret the fact that I have a BS (and I still enjoy doing amateur geology when I'm traveling and hiking), it's what I learned in my English-major classes that have stuck with me (and gotten me the kinds of interesting jobs I really wanted). In those classes, from Shakespeare to the British novel, from theory classes to feminism, I learned the most important thing one can when one is 18, 19, 20: I learned how to think. I learned how to look at the world from varying perspectives, and I learned to write — really write, not just regurgitate information in an essay.
I have several friends who were English majors, and yes, we are all employed; one is in business, another a psychologist, while a third is a stay-at-home parent. I am a nonfiction creative writer and blogger. And all of us love to read, and have a rich love of words and way of thinking about the English language that will last us far longer than any job ever will. In fact, I would argue that the open-minded, thoughtful, language-based curriculum that can be found at most good colleges and universities is more important (and ultimately, more useful) than many other more "practical" majors. What you learn as an English major can work in a number of jobs, many of them the kind that can't be exported.
Which brings me to an important point: as globalization proceeds apace, it seems as if the best jobs are those that will pay well (sure) but will also be those that stay in this country. That includes communication jobs, careers where a deep understanding of the language and history, and positions wherein writing clearly and well is necessary, will all continue to be needed and in-demand. Being the only person on your team, whatever the business or field, who can write well, will make you indispensable.
As Professor Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in the New York Times,"Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you. No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance."
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