Vindication of English Literature

If there is anything plaguing the academic atmospheres of colleges this year, it is the myopic, unimaginative, stuffily arrogant, and absolutely boring idea that the English major is a surefire route to the counter behind McDonald’s, Walmart, a teacher’s desk, or whatever low-salary paying job your parents and peers warn you against. I could and would append more scathing adjectives to that list, but brevity is the soul of wit: studying English literature is not in vain.

In my experience, the defenses from fellow prospective English majors are dichotomous.

The first defense (that I find irksome, boring, and wrong) is that English is easy. To this, I can only respond: avoiding to take challenges indicates cowardice, but underestimating the beauty and complexities of a study that helps us enjoy life more and endure it better is the crueler injustice, almost paramount to comparing Hamlet to the typical moody teenager or Javert to a creepy stalker.

The second and predominant justification is the romantic notion that the major makes better people and thus better societies, that reading and writing will educate the heart and open one’s eyes to see that life is, indeed, imbued with undiscovered meaning.

That is definitely true.

However, that is not to say only English literature can achieve such worldly epiphanies. The sciences (as the speakers of the Amos J. Peaslee Debate Society masterly championed as the more, if not the only employable fields in existence) are wonderful, and they do demonstrate the more prominent efforts for progress than any other scholarship. Nevertheless, in the claim that only they manifest progress and employability, I find vanity and contradiction.

For one, what characterizes progress and success is debatable. But if there are any academic groups that have debated and attempted to interpret  such questions, they are the philosophers, historians, political science pundits, and yours truly, the hermeneutically suspicious readers of literature.  No human ambition that we pursue or whose nature we believe worth studying rose to societal presence and definition without the efforts of the humanities majors – texts of note; discourses on the human condition; people who argue, mull, and respond to the veracity of words of old. It is what we call civilization, and the humanities possess profound admiration for it.

The debate yesterday compared the humanities to immuring ourselves by fixating on the ideas of dead white men (thereby discrediting Confucius, Gandhi and numerous other philosophers). Why study the past when even Gatsby warned us to let bygones be bygones? Because history is not linear, and many a time have revolutions in humanity degenerated into a variation of the old order. Humans learn from trial and error, and without a knowledge of yore, how can we sensibly take control of our futures? The past, present, and future remain, in essence, inextricable, interdependent forces, and the study of origins can never be more crucial in choosing our destinations. The humanities and especially English literature are disciplines that ensure that creed.

As for employability, the truth that most people do not initially grasp is that unlike some in the sciences, not all the majors in the humanities are specialized to one career – especially so for the English major.

Writing is more than an academic boon to studies: it is a means for opinion to come into palpable existence, for communication to outlast time, a salient skill utilized ubiquitously throughout careers. The English major embodies and teaches us this; we learn how to use language, shaping words to best convey meaning, imbuing them with satire, letting exaggeration bloom when timely.

What we study is of a versatile nature and value in any job, and I am relieved I am not alone in thinking this. According to The New York Times, “former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.” From The Huffington Post, business expert Steven Strauss writes, “I love English majors. I love how smart they are. I love their intellectual curiosity. And I love their bold choice for a major. Most of all, I love to hire them.” NY Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg concludes, “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. “

In other words, English majors are not students who waste away pouring time, blood, and sweat for an aimless subject. We are critical readers, creative communicators, passionate researchers, writers, bold learners in love with language and in love with life. But given the popular and detrimental notion that the humanities are pointless and the narrowing vocational entrenchment that defines what study we should devote to for the next four years, we English majors have become a rare breed. Even at Swarthmore, recipients of bachelor degrees in English Literature almost halved from 1995 to 2012, from 16.1% to 7.9%.

Should we succumb to such assumptions that define and constrain? Assumptions at Swarthmore?

Not I.

Above my fortunes, yet my state is well. I am an English major.