Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The value of an English major

College education is under fire right now. A degree doesn't guarantee you a job after graduation. Recent graduates aren't prepared for the workforce. Tuition costs are skyrocketing. Students are drowning in debt.

Society's solution to these problems is to encourage students to major in something useful, like business or engineering. Don't waste time pursuing your passion, because there's no ROI in that.

My major, English, tops nearly every "Most Useless College Majors" list. Usually I just smirk when I read these articles. I think I've done okay with my English major, and every time someone jokes about its uselessness I enjoy using myself as an example to prove them wrong.

But I feel it's time to defend the value of an English major, and humanities in general. Aside from it actually being a fun major, there are benefits that even a money-focused society can recognize. 

Monetary value

Simply stating that the humanities make us better human beings will fall to deaf ears if I can't demonstrate its usefulness to the economy, so I'll start there.

If you're like most people, you probably think that the only thing you can do with an English major is teach or write. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, and writers--unless you're one of the rare gems of the literary world like J.K. Rowling--can't usually support themselves on book sales.

That's all the evidence most people need to conclude that an English major is doomed to an educated life of poverty. However, the skills acquired from a humanities background apply to so many fields. I'll go out on a limb here and say that an English major can qualify for more jobs than an engineering major.

Let's start with that skill we're all familiar with: writing. When I was hired at ChartLogic two and a half years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about healthcare technology. I knew nothing about marketing and sales, other than my belief that salesmen are evil. But the company wasn't looking for someone with marketing skills or healthcare knowledge. What they needed was someone who could write and who had a strong grasp of English usage and grammar. The rest could be taught.

While anyone can learn to write, only some can do it well, making writing a skill that's high in demand. Virtually every business needs a writer to write content for their website/blog. Good writers are essential for marketing collateral, business proposals, and technical materials. Editing is another skill that is applicable to many different fields, not just traditional publishing. 

Many writers have gone on to hold prestigious business positions like marketing director and editor in chief.  Others cushion their income a bit more by taking on freelance jobs for magazines, newspapers, and other businesses. Even if writing or editing isn't your forte, there are still companies that want employees that can think analytically, something humanities students excel at. And while I chose not to go this route, I applaud all those who have made it their business to make sure the next generation is literate.

It's true that most English majors won't be living in that mansion on top of the hill, but the idea that a major is only as useful as its potential for a six-figure salary is just dumb. So is the idea that a person can only do a couple of things with any given major. Education is only as useful as you make it; if you want to succeed, you'll find a way.

Societal value

I am in love  the written word, a craft that isn't getting the attention it should in schools. Without it, my life would be bland. According to this guy
Literature, we are told, is vitally engaged with the living situations of men and women: it is concrete rather than abstract, displays life in all its rich variousness, and rejects barren conceptual enquiry for the feel and taste of what it is to be alive.
Studies have also shown that those who read are more empathetic. In the words of one of my favorite authors
The ability to empathise with others is an essential ingredient in forming genuine relationships, and healthy, genuine relationships are the basis of lifelong happiness. We cannot live through everything, we cannot experience everything. But we can live our lives, listen to others, and read. Reading literature, reading deeply, fills in the gaps of personal experience. Reading makes us better, kinder, smarter, happier people.
And that's it, really. The humanities humanize us. Of course, we still need doctors, engineers, business people, tech geniuses, and yes, sales guys, but if we eliminated the word nerds, musicians, and historians because they studied Paradise Lost in college rather than economics, this world would sure be a boring, unfulfilled place to live in.


  1. Thank you, thank you for this post!

  2. You are awesome Angie! Mike, who is an engineer, spends most of his time at work writing :)