Why Study English?

Perhaps you’ve asked, “Why should I major in English? I need a job when I graduate from college. I need a good income. Isn’t reading about and writing stories an impractical preparation for the world of work?  My parents and the news media tell me I should major in something practical instead.”  In fact, an English major is one of the most practical of all liberal-arts majors, either by itself or as a complement to another major, and studying English can richly reward those who understand its value.           

Story matters in the work world and beyond

The American poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made up of stories,/ not of atoms,” a line of verse that reminds us how vital and elemental story is in human life. In our everyday lives, we construct our own identities, our family histories, and our community identities through the stories we share. And story is also at the heart of more kinds of work than you might imagine. That’s why English majors, who devote themselves to studying the psychological, intellectual, and emotional complexities of story, enter the work world with a distinctive advantage.

A Harvard English major once related that her first job out of Harvard was as a salesperson for Xerox.  Initially, the hiring manager was skeptical that she would be a good fit, but when she demonstrated how fundamental understanding Xerox’s “story” was and how telling the story of that product to potential customers was exactly what she’d been trained for, she was hired.  Her story testifies to the value of an English major even in a career that may seem very distant from the study of Homer or Toni Morrison. Of course, we study such writers for the wonder of their stories, but we also benefit from understanding how stories are structured.  If you know how stories are made, you know how everything is made.

Beyond the practical relevance of story to your future career, an English major’s understanding of story has broader implications. For, when you enter college at the edge of adulthood, you become the author of your own life. By studying the rich repository of stories human beings have told over the ages, you gain a sense of the possibilities for your own life story. How will you characterize yourself, what plot will you trace, and to what end will your life story be directed?                                   

Good writing is power

Good writing may be the most important skill you ever develop. A 2010 American Management survey of over 2,000 business leaders found that the top skills needed for business success were communication (80.4 percent), critical thinking (72.4 percent), collaboration (71.2 percent), and creativity (57.3 percent). Therefore, of all possible employment skills desired by employers, communication ability outranks all others. Even though oral communication skills are very important for your future career, it’s simply a fact of our challenging economic climate that students who cannot write a good job letter may never have a chance to demonstrate their oral communication skills, for writing is often the first face that you present to prospective employers.  No matter what your major is, the students who will achieve career success will be the students who write well and with purpose. To illustrate that truth, here is an anecdote from a reader response to a September 15th, 2013 New York Times article about college student preparation for careers:

“I majored in English literature at LSU; 10 years later I found myself on Wall Street; I didn’t make zillions, but I did quite all right. English Lit was a very good field of study for me. I developed the ability to write and speak without having to grope for a vocabulary. As a banker, my ability to put my point across won me deals. The other guy often had a better proposal, but it fell flat when his presentation was punctuated with ah and um. Now I am retired and live in the far Southwest corner of France. I no longer use English; it is quite useless. Go figure!”.

Whether you want to be a banker, a biologist or a teacher, the writing skills you hone as an English major will be crucial for succeeding in your career.  

Creativity has currency

A few years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured an article about the renaissance of liberal arts colleges in China, a country that has long emphasized technical rather than liberal-arts education models. The article noted that today’s Chinese employers more and more prefer foreign-trained liberal-arts college graduates because of how liberal-arts graduates are trained to be creative, innovative thinkers. To regain that creative edge in education, the article reported, more and more American-style liberal arts colleges have been emerging in China. In our own world of American liberal-arts colleges, the study of English plays a key role in fostering creative thinking. Indeed, it is just such creative thinking that Lake Forest College’s English majors develop when they study the creative accomplishments of innovative writers ranging from Proust to Pynchon, and in turn develop their own skill as creative writers.                      

English is intrinsically worth studying

Life is short—and unpredictable. You may live to be eighty years old, or you may die tomorrow; no one knows how much time you will have. Given that uncertainty, your four years of college education are a precious and rare time to study what you love. Although an English degree may open doors for you in your future education or career, it is also intrinsically valuable as a way to spend your time right here and right now. Studying English will enrich your lives with greater wisdom and understanding, it will bring beauty to your life, and it will be just plain fun.     

For further reference

  I’m an English Major—Now What?:  How English Majors Can Find Happiness, Success, and a Real Job by Timothy Lemire 

Why English majors may be the hot new hires in OpenForum.com

Triumph of the English Major by New York City-based book editor Gerald Howard in the New York Times

What does a fine arts degree get you? Punchline: maybe a joban article from the Wall Street Journal

On Reading Proust - An interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on the value of reading literature in the New York Review of Books