At the end of class in my seminar, the professor had asked the roomful of upperclassmen English majors what could be done to improve the English department.
She said the department, in an attempt to attract more students, was trying to sell the utility of English in the ability to write and communicate effectively — in addition to thinking critically. But she confessed that she didn’t agree with this method; those were bonus skills one obtained from reading literature and not the main, driving reason that should be behind a student’s decision to declare an English major.
I thought back to my own journey and thought process that culminated in my own decision to declare. I began university knowing that there was a Creative Writing major and telling myself that I wouldn’t pursue it. Instead, I would be practical and choose a field of study that would secure my financial future.
Desperate to find congruence between my interests and a possible career path, I bounced around from a myriad of major and minor combinations. I just couldn’t bear the thought of doing something I didn’t derive fulfillment from for the rest of my life. I wanted my labor to be expended on something I thought worthy of my time and energy.
After almost two years of constantly rerouting my academic path, I found myself sitting in my advisor’s office declaring an English Creative Writing major, thinking back to the irony of it all, considering my explicit vow freshman year.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.
Throughout my life, I spent most of my free time reading, writing, and drawing. As a child, my parents would often tease me about becoming a starving artist. I received more positive reactions to my writing because my parents could see the direct benefits and advantages of being able to write well — it was a more “marketable” skill.
It’s rather insidious how this kind of diction and vocabulary shapes the way we perceive the world. “Productive,” “useful,” and “practical” — these words make value-statements about majors, careers, and people’s worth. Most students in the Humanities find a certain line of questioning from acquaintances, friends, and family alike rather irritating. It goes something like this: “What’s your major?” followed by, “Oh, what are you going to do with that?”
Indeed, what is the utility of the English major?
Literature has plenty of functional uses, but none of it is quite tangible or quantifiable. Through fiction, I am mindfully thinking outside my own existence about the world and people with experiences similar and dissimilar to my own.
Nail Gaiman said in his introduction to Fahrenheit 451 that “[f]iction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”
Unfortunately, my generation has come of age in a world of quantification. For many, it’s difficult to see the intrinsic value in the arts, but easy to identify the utility in STEM and marketing. The trope of the starving artist remains in popular culture and the collective consciousness. People love to consume entertainment but are loath to pay the artists.
Towards the end of the 2016 Presidential Election, one of my English literature professors said that he had seen a statistic on a news program that he didn’t think was right.
He did a little more research and found out that he was right — that the statistic was either exaggerated or flat-out incorrect. He wondered how he knew to question the information presented to him, and his instinct to dig deeper.
It was then that he realized those were basic Humanities skills.
English majors may not always land a job directly related to literature, but their major will make them question what they are told and the things they thought were a given.
Everything has context: time and place, target audience, key players, and implications. Everyone and everything is trying to sell you something, whether it be a product or an idea. Through my major’s coursework, I became more attuned to the complexity of contexts outside literature. As a result, I am more critical in my consumption of media.
The utility of the English major is learning how to become an individual and to form one’s own opinions, question the status quo, and think outside of oneself. Those skills are not tangible, quantifiable, or things can be readily monetized, but they are no less valuable — in fact, they are probably more valuable for that very reason.
In a world where any morsel of difference is used as a wedge to separate us and blind us to other people’s humanity, we need the arts now more than ever.