What's an English major to do?

These days? Not much, but - and I come from a long line of book nerds who agree with this - that's not the point.

The economy is bad and by all accounts it will be getting far worse in the coming months. College grads are being hit hard, so - stands to reason - many current college students are attempting to hedge their bets and major in something 'useful.' (I use this term loosely because attempting to find utility in this type of context can be tough. Who determines usefulness in a college major anyway? And how does one know if it is useful? But I digress.)

A recent article in the The New York Times investigates the drop in humanities majors. College kids (and their parents I'm sure) are opting for majors that are considered more 'useful,' and more likely to get them a job upon graduation. Being able to read books and write thoughtful prose about them is not considered high on the "going to get you a job list." Perhaps it'll get you into graduate school, but that just costs more money, and many don't want an advanced degree.

So what's the point? Why major in English (or English and History together, which is what I did. I know - real useful - and I'm not a professor, high school teacher (though I was) or an attorney; however, I am gainfully employed and I'm not flipping burgers.)

Learning and education has become more about a stepping stone to making money than an end in itself, and that's a sad situation. Don't get me wrong, education is absolutely about bettering yourself, and for many it's the ticket out of poverty, but a college diploma should mean more than a ticket to a lucrative job. It should mean that you've learned about the world and that you appreciate life a little more because of it.

So again, why major in English? Because reading great books teaches you about people. You will will come to appreciate the vicissitudes of life, the fickle finger of fate, the patterns that comprise human life. And, as Umberto Eco, says, it will teach you about death, a lesson that is important. In a novel, the story ends. In our lives, the story just keeps going. By understanding endings and the way people handle them, we are able to understand life's processes. We are also able to observe dynamic, multi-faceted people grappling with issues many of us find difficult to understand or will never experience. This, too, increases our understanding of humanity. I understood far more about my first real relationship from reading Anna Karenina than from any other activity. When the relationship was over, and I wanted to understand my feelings, the only persuasive explanation I could find was in Anna's relationship with Vronsky. It was of inestimable valuable to me.

Nowhere in the previous paragraph did I mention resumes, black interview suits, or finding job leads on monster.com. Jobs come and go. Economic upswings and downswings happen regularly, but having four years to delve deep into study and learn a few things about who we are and where we're going only comes along once. Majoring in English is never a waste of time or un-useful. I use my English and history major everyday, sometimes in the most creative and unforeseen ways.


  1. I had this conversation with my waiter yesterday. He an English major with no clue what to do after college. My argument was the same as yours. My husband and I were both English majors. He went to law school and I taught, then worked in public relations. I am now retired to my garden and home where I am delighted to live with "spines" (my books). LIterature, history art and music are our passports into life once lived and help make our own lives better. One must be able to make a living in this world, but making a life is where the grace is. I will keep David, my waiter, in my heart and hope he finds a way to keep aloat while he delves into the water of literature.

  2. I love it! Living with 'spines.' I'm going to start using that. Thank you for your post!


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