In Defense of English majors

This New York Times article, “Decline and Fall of the English Major,” is right up my alley.

Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. 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.

You should go read it.

ImageI want so much to agree, and think fondly of my undergraduate years exploring the liberal arts, and truth, beauty, and goodness.

But the anxious parents’ common question reminds me also of the discouraging questions so many of my kids asked me these past two years: “Why we gotta read this? When am I ever going to use this, Ms. Shea?”

And then they would look at me and expect me to give them a satisfactory answer in 2 minutes or less.

Usually, I would say something like, “That is a good question, but the answer is a long one. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts about it now, but feel free to come discuss it with me later at lunchtime.”

Only 2 students ever did come later at lunchtime.

And it’s a very difficult question to answer not only because a lot of people aren’t really listening, but also because, although I understand the parents who worry about their English major daughters and the high school students who complain about being bombarded with a lot of useless information, I simply don’t agree with their premises.

Part of me wants to grant those premises and say: Yes! Being an English [or insert other liberal arts here] major is useful! You need to know how to write and think critically no matter what you do! Think about job interviews! Think about college! Look at me!

… Well, okay, don’t look at me, I don’t make any money. 

The other part of me resists. It does not want to give in. It wants to say: You know what? You’re right. Being an English [or other liberal arts] major is useless. Completely useless. It won’t help you do better in your football game tonight.  It won’t help you in the 10 jobs you are probably considering for your future right now, nor will it help you in hundreds of other decent jobs. And no, it won’t help you make a lot of money. But that’s not the point. I’m not asking you to learn how to write an essay or read this book because it’s useful. I’m asking you to do it because it is good that you do it. 


What I really said (once, to one of my juniors) was this: “Okay. Let’s take a minute and think about this. Lots of us like to work out, go running, lift, right? Why?”

“Uh, ’cause coach make us.”

“Okay, yeah, but why does he make you?”

“So we’ll be healthier and stronger. Better.”

“Right. But think about it. Realistically, when in your life are you going to HAVE to run 5-6 miles? I mean, you can choose to if you want to, but it’s not immediately useful to everybody. When in your life are you HAVE to going to lift weights, over and over again?” [I began demonstrating with hand motions here] “Like doing this thing? Yeah, you might have to lift some boxes when you move out of your parents’ house, but you don’t need to kill yourself at the gym to do that.”

I paused, wondering if I was getting anywhere.

“English class is like that. But this time the muscle we’re exercising is your brain. It needs to stretch and move and lift. Yeah, maybe you won’t become a professor or researcher or journalist. Maybe you will never have to write an essay again in your life after you graduate high school. But that’s not the point. It exercises your brain, makes it stronger and healthier. And you will need your brain for the rest of your life.”

Okay, that got a few nods of approval.

But of course that answer did not really satisfy them either. And although I think it is helpful, I don’t think any student chose to major in English because he wanted to “exercise his brain.” He majored in English because he loved it.

Stanley Fish offers an incisive critique of Klinkenborg’s article, and really all liberal-arts lovers’ sentiments, here. Be forewarned, it’s rather depressing. And I am still digesting it.

As much as my heart disagrees with him, I think he’s right. So many of us liberal-arts people do “alternate between grand, un-cashable claims and pie-in-the sky proposals that have no traction because there is barely a suggestion of a road map that might lead to their realization.”

But that’s the difficulty, isn’t it? Aren’t we saying that there is not a clear “road map”? Aren’t we saying that when you look for the truth, you might find yourself going down paths you never thought you’d have the courage to take, or fording through treacherous ideas that only few people have really contended with? And all you really have are your critical thinking skills and your faith to guide you?

But maybe all these are more key terms that are just “spectacularly empty”:

 … just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite. (Stanley Fish)

Reader, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Oh, by the way, Stanley Fish. A parting shot: as an English major, I think Emily Dickinson would have this to say about using “spectacularly empty” words. Perhaps we do it intentionally:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—


10 thoughts on “In Defense of English majors

  1. I don’t normally comment on matters like this, but frankly I find the discussion interesting. English majors are like math and engineering majors. Engineering majors usually do not apply to be lawyers; math majors do not normally apply to be book publishers. When they do, it is no surprise they get nowhere pretty quickly. The same goes for English majors. I have known English majors to apply for jobs in business or marketing. Frankly, these jobs do not require writing or serious argumentation to perform.

    Is there any surprise that English majors fail to get jobs when they do not ply their skills to the right jobs? As for the value to an English major, no one else can weave words their way. Persuasion is the hallmark of an English major, at least if done right. The power to move an audience, companions, or coworkers to agree with your conclusions is a powerful gift.

    1. Tom, thanks for your thoughtful comment. There is only one part that, if I am understanding you correctly, I object to: “Is there any surprise that English majors fail to get jobs when they do not ply their skills to the right jobs?”

      I guess I would argue that there are no “right” jobs for English majors, although of course many jobs more explicitly seem to require writing skills and persuasive techniques than others… and yet I think all jobs can benefit from someone who has had the gift of a sound English education. (Other qualifications and technical skills also being necessary for some of them.)

      The agility of thought that an English major (or other liberal arts major) can bestow can be an aid to any and all professions. However, it’s properly pursued for its own sake.

  2. First of all, Maura, this was a pleasure to read. Thank you!

    I experienced the same issue with my own students this past year. My answers would range from talking about the “uselessness” of literature (and of many beautiful things) to the it’s-good-exercise-for-your-brain.

    I don’t have much to add to what you’ve said because you put it so well; I merely wanted to thank you for writing something so good.

    1. Thanks Micah! I really appreciate your thoughts and hope to hear more of them. (Very excited to hear about your adventure with the Order of Preachers, by the way. Prayers a’comin!)

  3. After mulling over this blog for awhile, I finally had the chance to sit down and read it carefully, including the two articles by Klinkenborg and Fish.

    I don’t find either of the source articles depressing as such. Klinkenborg presents statistics that are meant to show a sort of impending doomsday for the humanities. Fish gives a vigorous and at moments caustic review of Klinkenborg’s editorial, piecing it apart and sifting the good from the bad, in his opinion. Now, no one likes a critic any more than they like a prophet of doom, but though the latter denounce society while the former shushes him, neither are against the humanities as such. Klinkenborg has been on the editorial board since ’97 and presumably has a degree in English (journalism) and Fish is a professor of Humanities and Law (PhD in…?). Both have a stake in the humanities, which is why Klinkenborg tries to defend them and Fish is frustrated by the poor defense.

    And Fish’s point, from what I read, is what the two of them agree on: the humanities are being poorly defended. Klinkenborg offers three observations that are causes for the decline of the humanities. Cause #2 is “the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter”. Fish takes this point and corroborates with the real example of a Humanities report from Cambridge called The Heart of the Matter. He really attacks this text, and concludes that the purpose of the report (to provide practical guidelines toward a better appreciation and study of the humanities) is an unredeemed promise. Clearly, both agree that the humanities are poorly defended, and both blaim those who should best defend them.

    And why must the humanities be defended? Why is the “English major” the weakling among college careers, while abstruse concepts like “international business” and “political science” seem to fend for themselves? I would enjoy a post about that, but Fish offers a sort of answer for now in his conclusion: the humanities have always been about SPECULATIVE knowledge, knowledge for its own sake. “It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum”, he claims. I can only agree. Pragmatism, for better or for worse, is part of our American heritage, and it is not the best soil for the seeds of Language and Letters.

    Lastly, I am sorry for focusing so much on the other two articles. I found your contribution very interesting, as a teacher’s REAL LIFE perspective against the more theoretical backdrop of the two NY Times articles. I know that whether or not your students grow up to major in English, they will have a testimony of a teacher who really believes in an education, call it humanities, liberal arts, or otherwise, and can approach their lifework with a little more wisdom thanks to that testimony. That’s what it is all about.

    1. Hi Joshua,

      I really appreciate your thoughtful response, and I think your reading of both articles sheds a lot of light on their purpose. In my follow up post, may I cite some of your ideas?

      Your question is of great interest to me as well: why do the humanities have to be defended? And also: how can we defend them?

      I think these questions are particularly unsettling for those of us who never felt the need to ask them. The humanities are good! Shouldn’t everyone see that? Often I used to feel a twinge of disbelief when my kids would say, “We do we gotta learn this? When am I gonna use this?” And I think it’s tempting for humanities teachers to think that such questions come from laziness.

      Perhaps this is sometimes true. But I think there is a deeper confusion going on here, a deeper need of our culture that is being expressed by discontented high school students every day. Are there certain things that are good in themselves – self-evidently good? And should we expect people to recognize their goodness?

      Thanks again. Your comment has given me lots to think about.


      1. Hey Maura,
        I have been following your other posts, finally saw this reply! Please cite away, I’m flattered that you find it so helpful.
        Thanks for keeping up this blog, I’ve loved everything so far.


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