I haven’t heard that phrase for a very long time. Possible reasons: it’s been years since I taught English and/or for many people teaching English or majoring in English in college has fallen off. THINK AGAIN.
BUT MAJORING IN ENGLISH IS ABOUT OUR STORIES & SO MUCH MORE
How delightful to read this past weekend: Don’t study English Lit to Acquire Marketable Skills. Written by Rohan Maitzen, an associate professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. This is a piece eager to change your mind. He laments that the number of students choosing an English major has fallen off and investigates how to change that. He mentions the following:
- psychologists are presenting the crucial role that reading fiction plays in developing empathy; (and wow, do we need that in our culture today!!)
- philosopher Martha Nussbaum has outlined the ethical advantages of seeing the world as the novelist does i.e. rebuking reductive economic utilitarianism;
- programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature reveal the personal and social potential that reading imaginative literature demands.
But in the end, being an English major, Maizen writes, is about the power of words. He states: Literature is the record of the many stories we have told about ourselves and our world, and of the many ways we have found to use language artfully and beautifully, but also cruelly and obtusely. It both reflects us and shapes us. We don’t need any excuses for taking it seriously.
A DEGREE IN ENGLISH LITERATURE–AN END IN ITSELF OR A STEPPING STONE
So after reading Maitzen’s piece (and incidentally he teaches Victorian Literature which is what my brother, Prof. John Pfordresher teaches) I did a little more sleuthing and found this: Daniel R. Schwarz, asking What to Do With a B.A. in English? WOW. so many amazing, wonderful things. Here are a few of the examples he posted in the article:
- any aspect of working in the law
- a step to getting an advanced degree, say Art History
- medicine, hospital administration
- working in the financial industry or publishing industry;
- writers!! reporters, poets, novelists, researchers, interviewers, librarians, speechwriters, medical writers;
- and of course teachers—at any level of the teaching profession from elementary to advanced degrees.
CLEAR THINKING, HONEST WRITING We need both.
He also focussed on the need for clear thinking and how studying the works of great writers and possibly mediocre writers helps a future writer discover the difference.
Schwarz stresses the universality of an English major when interviewing for employment. He suggests that statements like these would be excellent for a future medical student or social services position:
“I majored in English because reading about other cultures and time periods complemented my life experience”
“No other major would have taught me so much about how people behave in various circumstances and in various cultures. More than any other major, I felt I would learn how other people live, what values motivate them, and why and how people think and feel.”
WHEN TALKING TO YOUR ALMOST-COLLEGE STUDENT
Again–the link to Schwarz’s piece which could be helpful if the talk to your son or daughter about how to pick a college major might be in your future. Schwarz asked some English majors to help support his thesis. Here are some of their answers:
Grace Jean, US naval reporter: “All the skills that I developed and honed through my English classes and seminars are put to use daily in my career as a journalist. Close reading, analytical thinking, and clear and concise writing have become the bread and butter of my livelihood. I have the English major to thank for playing an integral role in my professional development.”
Liz Wight graduate of Cornell University: “I think the thing the major gave me most was critical thinking, a yearning for discovery and clear means of articulating myself.”
Sal Ruggiero, Assistant Manager, Domestic Rights for the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group: “Reading and writing not just well but for a purpose has proved paramount to my job. Plus learning argument and persuasion techniques in essay writing sometimes proves useful in contract negotiation…”
I have never regretted majoring in English and teaching English at the secondary level. After all the term papers and essays I wrote and those my students wrote which I had to read and grade, there was always time for reading literature. And that’s my thing!
Photo Credit: The LA TIMES Taken at campus library of the Maywood Center for Enriched Studies in Maywood, Calif.