The English Major Problem

As an English major, I am used to having my choice of study be judged as inferior.  

I’ve often wondered why this is, and if it has always been the case, or if it is a result of our society’s constant need to innovate in tangible ways. In an ever-evolving world, thought and expression is often given a back seat and Science and Engineering, which are seen to advance our society’s way of life, are given prominence.  

I received an answer to my question in one of my classes the other day, where we discussed the divisive origins of English literature. It was first an area of study that taught its pupils how to acquire a good and proper use of the language, not necessarily as concerned with analyzing texts as it is today. It was created as an area of study that would be suitable for women and “2nd and 3rd rate” men who wanted to become teachers. This is likely where the gendered view of English as a “womanly” study emerged.  

While it may have emerged as a study meant for “2nd class citizens”, English soon became a sort of pseudo-religion when World War I caused many to lose their faith and literature returned meaning to their lives. It reasserted the ethics and morals that people believed they had lost.  

Additionally, English literature was thought to have been taught to control the masses. England’s literary accomplishments brought national pride to the country, and some believed that because reading was a solitary activity, citizens who read would be less likely to band together and revolt. It also offered an escape from people’s everyday conditions, which could be viewed positively or as a form of mind control to make people forget about the drudgery of their own lives.  

While the study of English and English literature’s origins are certainly divisive, no one would question its importance and impact on British and international societies from the past to the present. Despite this, the moment my teacher asked us how our non-English-major classmates viewed the study of English, around half of the hands in my class shot up. Almost everyone had a story about how their non-Arts housemates and friends often dismiss our workloads and assume our assignments are far easier and less rigorous than their own. Our teacher had to plead with our class to move on after much discussion about this, but if she hadn’t, I think we could have continued on for another hour.  

From this discussion, I realized two things: first off, my classmates have a lot of pent-up aggression about being continuously looked down upon academically and secondly, English is undervalued due to the uncertainty it affords.  

My peers don’t have a personal vendetta against the subject of English itself, but rather against any degree that doesn’t offer a direct career path. But our peers need not worry, because an abstract career goes hand in hand with what we learn best in our classes; abstract thinking.  

While the future always seems daunting, people assume we English majors have as much lack of faith in our future as they do, and as such, judge our choice to study English as wasteful (of time and money) or indulgent. What they don’t understand, however, is that there is a richly rewarding joy in studying English – not to mention the myriad of transferable skills that it offers. We deserve to pursue our interests just as much as the next person – so what if those interests don’t lie in a S.T.E.M. field?

What I also find interesting is that this same sort of dismay and doubt isn’t shown to my friends in Con-Ed, even though a handful of them study English as their teachable subject and are in many of the same classes as myself. The only difference between us is that they have a direct path into a career at the end of their time at Queen’s. But just because English on its own doesn’t lead directly into a specific job at the end of our academic career, that doesn’t mean that we won’t find job opportunities. They just might not be the traditional ones that other people expect.

While the subject of English can’t be shown to quantifiably improve life like medicine or technological innovations and isn’t directly correlated to making money for the economy like Business, we need only look to the past to see how it influenced society then and apply those same concepts to the present. Science has the power to heal, but people often forget – so, too, do words.  

I am confident in myself and in my future as an English major, and it wouldn’t hurt anyone else to at least pretend they are, too.