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Why Study English in College?

Updated on July 17, 2016

English Matters

As Gauri Viswanathan describes in his famous book Masks of Conquest, English as a field of study was formally introduced in India during the British Raj as a means to shape culture, language, and knowledge. Ultimately, English had the power to establish a hierarchy in which British values were held above all else--an unfortunate consequence. Similarly, Plato describes the ways in which "bad" literature can corrupt youths and instill immoral values in The Republic. With WWII looming, W.H Auden declared in his poem In Memory of W.B Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen." If literature corrupts and if poetry is ineffectual, then why do we bother?

Many English majors believe that language matters, that it can even shape our reality. This is not a new idea--in fact, Plato's proposed censorship in The Republic is evidence of the transformative nature of language and literature. Auden ultimately conceded to this notion in later interviews, and Viswanathan proved that we shouldn't take the study of books and language lightly. Most of twentieth-century philosophy is littered with debates about linguistics and literature, including works by Wittgenstein, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Butler to name a few.

What Skills Do You Learn?

English is associated with skills like textual analysis, logical argumentation, communication, and critical thinking. The Harvard University English Department writes that English majors learn skills like critical reading, writing, speaking, and ethical understanding, while other universities simply argue that English provides general knowledge in virtually any field.

English is also highly interdisciplinary, which means your work will not necessarily be limited to one single field. For example, digital literary studies--a branch of digital humanities--explores the nature of language in digital environments, often drawing on computer science, statistics, and media theory. Other fields you may study in tandem with English include cultural studies, philosophy, linguistics, history, political science/philosophy, race studies, gender studies, queer studies, and more.

How Well Do These Skills Translate to Other Areas?

Many English majors tend to find jobs in publishing, marketing, and HR. In fact, according to Robert Matz, English majors are more likely to work in a high-paying field than, say, the food-service industry after graduation:

English majors, who go on to a range of careers, are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent). Parents worried that their children will study English and end up as baristas should know that their sons and daughters are statistically more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than behind the counter of a Starbucks.

This is not to suggest there is anything wrong with the food-service industry. Rather, Matz simply notes that English is an incredibly practical and versatile area.

Specifically, English prepares students to work as editors for publishing companies, as content writers in digital marketing, as human-resources managers, and, naturally, as teachers. English is considered a pre-law degree (especially rhetoric and literature), and many English students study foreign languages in order to prepare for careers in translation.

The Myth About Education as Investment

It is worth noting that, although many English majors are incredibly employable, wealth is not the goal of every student. The concept that you should "invest in your future" transforms students into commodities, presenting the world in terms of late capitalism. Aside from the fact that fewer and fewer college graduates actually pursue careers in their majors, there are several reasons to reconsider the college-as-monetary-investment attitude.

For Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker, "we need the humanities because we're human." In other words, many English students are drawn to the field because it promotes humanistic values like civil rights, ethical engagement, self-knowledge, and philology (literally, a love of studying) in general. English is for students who love to read, who are obsessed with language, and who understand that words can shape our culture and knowledge.


In Other Words...

English teaches the following skills:

  • critical thinking
  • writing
  • reading
  • ethical engagement

Teaching English at the secondary and post-secondary levels provides a foundation for a quality liberal arts education. Believe it or not, 1 in 5 Americans is functionally illiterate, and companies spend approximately $3.1 billion per year on remedial reading and writing for underprepared employees.

Education should put people first, not money. English promotes the humanities, often helping individuals to live more fulfilling lives.

John Steinbeck: Human Understanding is Tied to Language

Interested in Additional Research?

Visit these sites for more information and perspectives:

https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/07/06/cultural-implications-myth-english-majors-end-working-permanently-starbucks-essay

http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006483.pdf

http://english.fas.harvard.edu/why-english/

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-teach-english

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_illiteracy#cite_note-1

© 2016 Sebastian A Williams

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