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Sunday, November 13, 2011

English: The Non-essential Fun Degree?

The basis for this post comes from a troll who left a frothy list of accusations and assumptions about what I know, and, most importantly, what I do.  As trolls are wont to do, much of what was said can be waved off as pish posh and poppycock, but it's the attack on the English degree that, I think, stems from a much larger misunderstanding of the field.  I'd like to address those misunderstandings here.

What We (Don't) Do
There are a lot of myths about English majors, some of them perpetuated by films and others by people who really don't know anything about the state of the field today.  But it would be more efficient to deal with what English majors do rather than refuting the long list of things that they don't.

English is an interdisciplinary field.  That means that rather than only studying literature and literary criticism, English majors also study sociology, history, science, economics, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, and dozens of other fields -- depending, of course, on individual study interests.  My research, for example, requires me to be familiar with at least half of the disciplines already lists, as studying empire demands knowledge from a variety of directions.  While it is true that English majors are not trained in most of these fields (in the proper sense of the term "trained"), they are also not lazy wanderers.  They take
interdisciplinarity seriously because they understand the value of research in other disciplines.  And those disciplines bleed into one another -- research from one field becomes important to another, and vice versa.

In fact, much of what English majors are concerned with are the ways language has been used in the past, how it is used now, and how it will be used in the future.  Recall that language has and will continue to be used for everything from propaganda to public outreach to exploration of the self.  There are infinite numbers of uses for the written word, and studying such uses (what it means, what it does, how it influences the formation of nations or groups or our conception of self, etc.) is the domain of English majors.  And those things are important, not least of all because understanding where we come from and how we go to where we are today will help us, as a species or culture or nation, to figure out where we are going (or how we can get somewhere else).

Likewise, English majors are concerned with processes of thinking.  At the same time that we teach "stuffy literature classes," we are also attempting to foster independent thought through an almost scientific process. Learning literature is not about figuring out what hidden meanings Shakespeare put into his work, but about making hypotheses, finding evidence, and using that evidence to support an argument -- rinse and repeat.  And because the field is interdisciplinary, that often means examining literature in a wide range of social, political, or philosophical contexts.

Not So Non-Essential
As I've argued before (on Google+ somewhere), English is not a non-essential degree program.  In fact, without English majors, civilization cannot function.*  English majors teach the language to children or people in businesses in other countries.  They teach adults who went to underfunded schools and were left behind, or adults who made poor choices and want to get back on their feet.  They teach people to write, to read, to comprehend, and to argue.

English majors are journalists -- who bring the world to our doorstep -- and authors -- who teach us something about ourselves.  They are technical writers, social workers, lawyers or legal assistants, copywriters, editors, grant writers, PR specialists, administrative assistants, etc.**  They work for the various departments of the government, non-profits, schools, and businesses in a variety of fields for which their degrees qualified them.

Basically, English majors are essential to the fabric of the nation, much like many other majors.  Because English degrees generally require immersion in a variety of disciplines, those who acquire those degrees are not only uniquely trained for non-academic jobs, but are also uniquely trained to teach the next generation of thinkers to think from a variety of avenues.  It's not all about stuffy, ancient literature in these parts.

What Others Think (Updated Periodically)

Kea Worthen
English majors are important because it teaches a type of observation and thinking skill set that many other disciplines don't allow. I mean, we call ourselves English majors, but we really should be in the school of Interdisciplinary Studies. I have never met an English major that just studies English. We look at sociology, culture, gender, history, religion, etc...And we think about things in terms of what happened in the past, what happens in the present, and what will happen in the future. That is, I think, the main problem with society. Too many people have tunnel vision. And that tunnel vision limits so many possibilities. English majors are trained to look at those other possibilities--even if those possibilities makes us uncomfortable sometimes. But it is about self-improvement. And having a thought process that is not prearranged by an ideological apparatus. Sure, we suffer under our own ideologies, but at least we are cognizant of it. I think that is why the English major is so important. Because we learn to observe and think about what we are observing. That is, to me, an important thing.
Paul Genesse
English majors are some of my best friends. A number of them are also excellent teachers. Getting an English degree is not the best move if you want to assure yourself a high-paying job, but most English majors are very resourceful people.
Jennifer Bagley
Kea stole my answer! So I will just concur with her. English majors are not only interdisciplinary, but they are valuable in nearly every career field - communications, politics, law, business, even science related careers who need a bit of a hand in terms of creative thinking and expressing ideas. There's a reason that most technical writers are English majors. We facilitate communication with the world.
Aishwarya Ganapathiraju
English majors are important because the world needs people who focus on language. We construct our worlds - our ideas, our concepts - through language. And so, to me, English majors (okay, without language majors) help clarify the world, call the world on its bullshit and to kick down walls that language builds up. (All of this ties in to the idea that as instructors of English we teach a specifically interdisciplinary thinking - and also to the idea that we foster competencies, rather than skills.)
Gwendolyn Spencer
Because the world needs people who can interpret language and meaning, and eloquently explain it to others. And so that we have people in this world who can contribute to the understanding of the world rather than complicate it.
Terra Whitesitt
English/lit/Humanity majors create discourse, on anything, on everything. It's flexible that way. It's imperative, also, to have schools of thought. The sciences and mathematics are extraordinary, don't get me wrong, but you find your thinkers in the liberal arts. It's in the liberal arts where we learn to dismantle what we were taught our whole lives, and where we learn to create new ideas, new possibilities, and learn to defend these thoughts with sound logic, creativity and humor.
Kelsey Ray
As an English major, I find it necessary to study anything I can get my hands on outside of class. The major is more of a study of effective and creative techniques, from the point of view of one going into creative writing. But one also needs the knowledge of several subjects to be able to analyze a work appropriately in all of its contexts. Also, depending what you are working on, such as science fiction or fantasy, you need to know how the world works in terms of science. As an English major, you learn skills specific to analyzing and communicating ideas not only with precision but with creativity. But to function at the fullest, a lot of outside research is required, in my opinion.
A great deal of people seem to think of the English major as a teacher of a thinking process.  This is not something I had initially thought of when I made this post.  But it is true.  Part of what we have to deal with as teachers is the problem of unidirectional thinking, which our public schools have been forced to teach our students.  You can get an impression of what this has done to young people in the West by watching this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson.

And Scene
To put an end to this long-winded post, I want to address one last problem with the title of this post:  namely, that English is a "fun" degree.  I bring this up not because I disagree about the fun-ness of English, as I do have a great deal of fun doing what I do, but because it assumes that "fun" and "non-essential" are tied together.

Why do something you don't enjoy?  Is not the point of higher education to find something you love and pursue it wholeheartedly?  Such a pursuit may be fun at times, but it is also hard work.  But at the end of the day, you're still doing something you enjoy.  To me, that's the entire point of higher education.  Yes, it is about paving the way towards a career, but it is also about doing something that stimulates you.

Maybe I'm an idealist for thinking one should be able to pursue the career that most interests them.  Life would be a terrible curse if we all had to spend the rest of our lives in jobs we hated.  I'm not willing to live that way, and I don't think anyone else should either.

*I use English as an amalgam here.  If you are from a country where English is not the dominate language, then substitute your spoken form and the same argument applies.  This post is less about English as a global language (which is a separate argument to be had) and more about why the written form, wherever it comes from, is valuable.

**If you want to see an incomplete, but exhaustive list of things English majors can do with their degrees, here you go.

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  1. Awesome post. Viva English!

  2. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Anonymous9:04 AM

    Allow me to say I have a degree in philosophy and religious studies. I now work in communications and marketing. The degree to which I am more flexible, analytic, cross-inspirational and creative than my colleagues and co-workers who have communications, marketing, or other sorts of business degrees is exceptional. Although I highly respect technical educations where required - namely in the sciences and certain technologically intensive domains - it is incredibly unfortunate that certain educational streams focus on learning specific knowledge instead of the art of acquiring knowledge generally. I cannot begin to list the things I've learned on the job or in my spare time because I have the knack and gusto to do so - while many of my friends, bewildered at their own stupidity, go to post-grad technical and vocational schools to learn the skills they are apparently too vapid to pick up without an instructor.

    And yet, on a regular basis people ask me: "So how did you end up in marketing?" and I must make this joke: "Well, the philosophy factory didn't have any openings!"

    Bleh. Good on ya for this post Shaun.

    (I am a regular reader, but I'm going to post this anonymously just in case!)