Enter the English major

Opinion graphic

Recently, I stumbled across an online message board post that questioned the value of pursuing an English degree. The poster declared English majors are not hirable in the workforce (misspelling “hirable” in the process) and asserted that the degree does not give one unique and useful skill to take into the job industry. In the name of “pragmatism,” voice ripe with condescension, he asked if the point of an English degree “was just to pick something easy through college?”

Oh, man.

The perpetual ignorance of the quality of an English education, as well as lack of understanding as to how it actually operates, never ceases to amaze me. Ever since I declared my major as English, I have received a barrage of questions as to why I am completing such an “interesting” degree.

“English, huh? So you are wanting to teach?”

Well, no.

“What exactly can one do with it?”

Really, a number of things. English majors can go into advertising, journalism, law, education, marketing, public relations, publishing and communications – just to name a few.

“People say there is a hard market for liberal arts majors right now. Are you aware of that?”

Yes. I am constantly receiving reminders (including this conversation).

Essentially, the theme I often encounter from others about my decision to be an English major is this: I am embarking on a colossal, magnificent and irreversible waste of my time.

That could not be further from the truth.

As is expected, much criticism towards an English education stems from the fact that not very many people understand how it actually works. Often, college is seen as a means to a specific end. One bases their degree on the career field into which it can take them: engineering majors become engineers, veterinary science majors become veterinarians, and architecture majors become architects.

This is, indisputably, not the case with English majors. You will not know an English major who, 10 years from now, is working as an “Englisher.” Consequently, this lack of certainty leads many to quickly and incorrectly assume that receiving an English degree is not a valuable use of time or money.

In an article published on June 22, 2013 in The New York Times on the current state of the English major, American non-fiction author and newspaper editor Verlyn Klinkenborg states that, “(f)ormer 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.” This is the beauty of an English degree; an education in English can lend itself towards just about any profession. It’s also a fairly flexible degree due to the way it is structured.

English majors rigorously challenge and improve the quality of their knowledge and their application of the English language, which can directly translate into valuable skills needed in the workplace. Through a detailed reading of different texts, they improve their ability to analyze, process and critically question established information. Through courses led by class discussion, they improve their ability to clearly and effectively articulate ideas, as well as engage in innovative conversations that enhance their communicative skills. Through exhaustive amounts of writing – including creative, expository, technical and persuasive – English majors hone a valuable craft that will serve them throughout the job market.

These skills can translate into jobs within many industries, which is in fact, what most English majors want. They passionately enjoy using the skills that an English education has given them for different jobs. This mindset lands English majors in all kinds of occupations, contributing creatively and valuably to companies and, furthermore, having success. Did you know that Stephen Spielberg, Clarence Thomas, Sting, Chevy Chase, Conan O’Brien and Sally Ride were all English majors?

And enough with this silliness about the easy course load English majors have throughout college. In addition to daily reading, analysis and examination for that reading, I will be expected to produce approximately 75-80 pages of original creative writing this semester. Any English major you ask will tell you that their workload is comparable, if not more cumbersome, than other degree workloads.

People like to trivialize an English degree as glorified reading and writing that everyone has been taught since preschool. Well, I can add, subtract, divide, multiply and even do a little algebra, but I certainly will not use those experiences as a reason to debase the principles of, say, an engineering, architecture or physics degree. A fruitful job industry must contain those employees who have gone to school in pursuit of a specific career. But there also must be a communicative glue of employees who can present and articulate ideas while communicating with different people.

Enter the English major that helps strengthen workplace communication, drinks lots of coffee, corrects your grammar and edits all manner of documents (including their own text messages). This sounds like a description of a “hirable” student to me.

Charlie King-Hagan is a sophomore in modern languages.