The Life and Death and Life of the English Major

flickr-wordsI was almost an English major.  My mother wanted me to be an English major (she was an English major until she had to drop out of UCLA, and I think in her mind my degree was her degree, and she didn’t want us getting a degree in something she didn’t like).  But I was theater mad, and majored in Theatre Studies, which was more or less an English major with credit for doing stuff in the theatre (there is now a Theatre major at my college; there wasn’t then).  My older daughter is majoring in English. And despite the dire commentary about the uselessness of an English major, I’m delighted.

Even when I was in college people were beginning to fret about what college was good for.  Why would you study something that interests if it’s not training you for something? Well, I don’t regard college as a training school: both of my kids have been told from early on that college was all about opening yourself up to new ideas, to learning to knit ideas together, synthesize facts.  As it turns out, I use things I learned in my Theatre Studies degree every day.  But I didn’t go to college to train to be a something or other.  I went to college, as the kids’ rhyme goes, to get more knowledge.

Apparently English, as a major, is in decline.  At the same time, the need for English majors, or at least people who can write clear, declarative sentences, is rising.  I work for a company that creates activity books for kids.  We are known for our instructions, which are written, tested, revised, re-tested, re-revised, all so they can be understood, without confusion, by kids (and their parents).  Sounds easy?  It isn’t.  Oh, the discussions we have on a paper-folding craft: do you fold up? forward? back? down? toward you? Any one of these works for some readers, but we need the one that works for all readers, or as close to all readers as we can get.  There’s your English-major job for you.  When you think of it, the whole world is full of English-major jobs: tech writing, political writing, medical writing, science writing, entertainment writing, journalism.  The idea is that if you know medicine, or politics, or tech, or science or…well, whatever, you can write about it.  Cause writing is the easy part, right? Anyone can write.

Well, maybe.

I have written about financial planning, the treatment of childhood depression, heroic game wardens, cable TV programming systems, and mortgage-backed securities.  I was not trained in disciplines related to any of these things.  I was trained to take a topic, research it, discuss it, confirm the information, and write about it.  Now, I’m lucky, and I know it.  Writing comes more easily to me than to many other people (math may come easier to them. Or mechanical engineering. Or, or, or…).  But all through college I typed papers for people who did exactly the same thing I was doing: taking a topic, learning about it, developing theses, and writing it all down. The English degree can be a doorway to almost anything else: my uncle was graduated from Penn with a degree in English; went on to get a Masters, then a Ph.D in anatomy, helped start the UCLA medical school, and taught there for 57 years.  An English major worked for him.

I’ll close by quoting my daughter’s reaction to the article I linked to above: “The whole “What do you do with a B.A. in English” thing? Um, YOU F**KING LEARN STUFF AND GAIN NEW INSIGHT INTO THINGS YOU PREVIOUSLY COULDN’T UNDERSTAND, JUST LIKE WITH ANY SUBJECT. Sheesh.”


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


The Life and Death and Life of the English Major — 8 Comments

  1. “At the same time, the need for English majors, or at least people who can write clear, declarative sentences, is rising.”

    Is there any reason to believe that the former group produces more of the latter?

    • Probably not–but at least when I was in college, the English department was avid in its pursuit of grammatical and rhetorical errors. I came to my college able to write reasonably well (for a 17-year-old). I left a far better writer, thanks in part to the professors I had in the English and History departments, in particular.

      There is, alas, a rising trend toward academic doublespeak (along with its fraternal twin, business doublespeak) where the writer seems to think that deliberate poly-syllabic gobbledegook will keep the reader from actually understanding the information at hand. Makes me want to shoot someone.

      • Just realized what I may have meant to say: when I lament the decline of the English major one might substitute “academic generalist”–I really object to the notion of college as an upmarket ITT Tech, meant to give you narrow job-related skills. Twelve years of primary and secondary education gives you (or should give you) a foundation for going wider and deeper, synthesizing, making connections. If college-level education becomes too narrowly focused, I think our society as a whole suffers.

        But maybe that’s just me.

        • No. Not just you. My undergraduate degree is in “Plan II” — that’s what it actually says on my diploma — which was the University of Texas liberal arts honors program. I didn’t have to major in anything, so I didn’t. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It exposed me to so many different things.

          Of course, these days college costs so much that people are trying to be practical. But the truth is, no one knows what kind of skills they’ll need 20 years from now. A good general education teaches you to think, and that’s the most important skill you can pick up.

  2. Oh, for sure. Certain. If by no other process than that of elimination, you can prove it. Pick up something that has just dropped from the keyboard of a systems software engineer. OMG. These guys write English all right, but only because it is clearly not French, Latin or Spanish.
    We English majors may become like the wardrobe mistresses in theater. Yeah, someone else did the play, the set, the casting, the directing, the production and the financing. But Hamlet steps out there with his fly open and it is all for nothing. You still need us.

  3. I wasn’t going to reply to this, just to say that my English major has served me well. But then I saw this, and I thought you and other readers of this post might want to see it to. It changed the whole Times article for me, quite a bit.

  4. I use my English major daily in my work and the rest of my life. When I went back to school for my M.A., a friend asked why I wanted to do that. I firmly replied, “Because I like it and I’m good at it.” He had no more questions, just a thoughtful look on his face.