The Major #1: English?

Looming above many college students is the uncertainty of choosing a major.

The Core does not have specific instructions on how to make this important decision… However, here we highlight some of the common opinions on the matter. Today’s topic is the English Major:

In a thoughtful though rather biased article from The Chronicle Review we find the most common sentiments supporting the English major:

English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.

The English major at her best isn’t used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time’s right. She knows that language isn’t there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels.

The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living. Then, of course, there is the commentary on the comments. There must be, as Eliot says, a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of the toast and tea—and a few after as well.

The English major wants to use what he knows about language and what he’s learning from books as a way to confront the hardest of questions. He uses these things to try to figure out how to live. His life is an open-ended work in progress, and it’s never quite done, at least until he is. For to the English major, the questions of life are never closed. There’s always another book to read; there’s always another perspective to add. He might think that he knows what’s what as to love and marriage and the raising of children. But he’s never quite sure. He takes tips from the wise and the almost wise that he confronts in books and sometimes (if he’s lucky) in life. He measures them and sifts them and brings them to the court of his own experience. (There is a creative reading as well as a creative writing, Emerson said.)

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

Taking a look at the discussion of the English Major’s disadvantages is key, as this post highlights:

As an English major you may find yourself spending the first few years in your chosen profession trying to catch up, to learn the specifics of that field. Or you may be unsure what job to pursue at all. These disadvantages of an English major are particularly salient for the student who specializes in literature, an area with far fewer career options than writing. The best way to overcome this drawback is to study a particular area of English, such as education or ESL, or to at some point during your education take an internship in the field you would like to pursue after graduating.

Another potential English major disadvantage is that English professors tend to focus on teaching skills such as critical thinking and reasoning, and less on concrete information. There is little to no memorization in an English class, and very often there are no tests—only long research papers. This can be a good thing, since critical thinking skills and abilities such as doing research are so important. At the same time, however, English majors come away from college knowing very few facts and details.

Also, as a comment on Humanities degrees in general, is the following lecture by Dr. Damon Horowitz, a philosopher and entrepreneur. He explores what is possible at the intersection of technology and the humanities. He discusses the value of a humanities Ph.D. in a world that is being continuously inundated with new technology, and how to apply the degree toward a successful career:

So, there is plenty of food for thought.

What are your views on the English Major?

The Core faculty and staff would gladly discuss these questions with students facing such a dilemma. Feel free to drop by our office at CAS 119.

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