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Why study English?

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When I tell people outside of Swat’s intellectual community that I want to be a Computer Science and English Literature double major, the response is usually something along the lines of, “Why study English?” The first time this happened, I was slightly taken aback. Why did I have to justify a passion for literature when one for coding is lauded as smart, practical, and even exemplary?

When people hear “Computer Science major” attached to my name, they are sometimes shocked, as I don’t exactly fit the stereotypical, general perception of a CS major: some guy who spends all his time in a basement gaming and playing Dota. Still, they are usually impressed, often commenting that I will have an easy time getting a job or that they think I will be really successful.

With English, this is not the case. When people hear the words “English major,” their minds jump to a picture of an idealistic idiot who, twenty years later, will be living under a rock writing poetry, attempting in vain to find a publisher interested in their 1,000 plus-page novel on 18th-century Russian idealism; or a picture of a professor in a lecture hall at a school in the middle of a cornfield wearing a tweed jacket and preaching about the importance of Medieval Literature to a group of half-asleep freshmen who could not care less.

Although these stereotypes do not cover the breadth of options English majors have after college, it is true that such majors have an average starting salary far lower than that of most other disciplines. This is a fact that turns many away from the department, even if they are one of the dwindling few who may have a passion for literature. As someone who is also studying Computer Science, arguing that starting salaries don’t matter would be hypocritical. So why study English when sticking solely to Computer Science would be the more practical choice?

English as a discipline is far more valuable than most believe. People who have never taken a college English class often assume that the department concerns itself solely with the contents of novels when, in fact, English classes — at least the ones I have taken so far at Swat — employ novels as portals through which we engage in sociological and political analyses of the time periods in which they were written and read. For example, in Professor Patnaik’s first-year seminar Literature and Law, we discussed the various ways in which Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” helped spur the 19th-century English Property Law reform movement that eventually granted women the right to own land.

The ways in which fictional works influence the way we live our lives are infinite. So many societal trends and behaviors evolve from characters and themes formulated inside authors’ imaginations. The cultural influence locked inside novels affects the way we behave and interact with each other, especially across social and political differences.

In her critically influential text “From Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel,” Nancy Armstrong states, “Fiction alone enables very different individuals to sit down to dinner in entirely unfamiliar places without finding them particularly strange, to shuffle into classrooms with people they have never met and with whom they might have little else in common … In this respect, the most powerful household is the one we carry around in our heads.”

Widely circulated works of fiction, and the themes that emerged from such stories, have molded behaviors throughout history and continue to touch the present, tying together people across large swaths of distance and time. Throughout her piece, Armstrong emphasizes not only the supreme power of reading fiction but the necessity for writers to keep creating it.

“In suppressing the fact and agency of writing, we also suppress the historical process by which these spheres of self, society, and culture were created and held in equilibrium … and thus the political power exerted by fiction — beyond our power to question.”

We have the privilege of attending one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, and our English department is fantastic. The professors are renowned in their respective fields, brilliant in lecture, and constantly pushing their students to achieve a greater level of understanding of the text and of the world.

Further, there aren’t a lot of places where you can take both English Literature and Computer Science every semester, and the fact that Swarthmore permits its students to open their minds to new disciplines, and diversify the range of subjects explored is an opportunity of which I think more of us should take advantage.

So when you’re signing up for classes come December and you scroll past the English Literature section, give it a second glance before moving on. Even if you’re a STEM major who took Modern Algebra to fill a writing credit, you may actually enjoy learning through novels. The classes are pretty incredible; I recommend giving one a chance.

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