English degrees

When I started by college career, I began as an English major. I enjoy writing and I think language is very important. However, I soon found I disliked the historical focus in my English courses. It isn’t that I dislike history – I love it, actually – but I didn’t feel I needed to know all the details of whatever issue of the day had influenced a writer. For instance, knowing that children were chimney sweepers helped me understand some of William Blake’s work because it gave me context, but the detailed politics of child labor in the 1800’s were for another type of course. And so I moved on. At first I simply went to the nebulous Liberal Studies degree. My passion was biology, but I really despised math courses, so LS allowed me to minor in biology while avoiding most math. Of course, that wasn’t quite satisfying enough for me, so I eventually just bit the bullet and declared my major to be biology. I now have two B.A.’s, one in Biology and one in Liberal Studies (with a philosophy minor), but I still think back to that English degree. I’m not going to bother ever obtaining it, but I do want to defend it.

While I was still majoring in English, I didn’t usually try to hide it. I thought, why should I be ashamed? It was a degree in a subject where, sadly, most people are utter morons. It isn’t exactly a money-making degree, but it fit a passion of mine. Of course, we can’t forget an important fact here: People are assholes. Admittedly, an English degree isn’t as hard to obtain as many other degrees, but it’s still a degree and it still requires a lot of work. Moreover, despite the contrary popular myth, an English major does not graduate with a lack of real life skills. I should know. I use my writing skills every day – and not just on some blog in the corner of the Internet. I’ll explain.

My job involves describing and interpreting a huge variety of college level textbook images. I mostly specialize in math (ironically enough), but I also do science and other books. One of those “other” books is one on which I’m working right now: an engineering mechanics dynamics book. I barely understand the title, much less anything to do with engineering. Or so I thought. The material is a lot of pre-calc and algebra II stuff on the math end and a lot of physics for the remainder, and I understand all that, but that doesn’t mean I understand engineering on a deep level at all. However, I’ve been able to easily work around that due to a higher level understanding of English. (My two or so years as an English major definitely helps, but my general interest in language is the bigger factor here.) Because I am able to write well, I am able to do this job well. In essence, because of my background in English (both formally and informally) I am better prepared to tackle a very difficult topic. I doubt the average person with an MBA could do this job.

So here’s my point. It may be true that English majors aren’t setting themselves up, on average, for huge financial success with their degrees, but it isn’t true that their degrees are of a low utility. Quality writing is one of the more important skills in society, even as we move more and more towards a money-driven corporate, business culture. I use my skills in English every single day, making me more money than I’ve made doing anything else – including making vaccines. My science degree is what really got my foot in the door where I am now, but it is my English background that has brought me success.

So, hey. Stop shitting on English degrees and the people who obtain them. They have more skills than you realize.

4 Responses

  1. Got to be better than a degree in theology.

    That would be like getting an English degree by only studying War and Peace in excruciating detail from end to end and back again.

  2. I’ve long said theology is little more than literary criticism with an extremely narrow focus.

  3. Other degrees that provide little practical support are history and philosophy. At least the philosophers can be philosophical about it.

    And consider professional poets. In the U.S., I’ll bet there exactly two poets that can make a living at their craft.

    Sad, in a way.

  4. English nerds are some of my favorite people. I feel their are fields where the hurdles are obvious and so when one overcomes those hurdles we can look at that person and say, wow, they must be smart. I feel that in a major like English the level of rigor is lower, but that doesn’t mean that a student can’t be rigorous about it. So some people really immerse themselves into their major and as a result are excellent communicators but also very bright at analyzing language for meaning, patterns, etc. English nerds usually have excellent memories, excellent wit (which I think is a sign of intelligence) and are very detail oriented. As you note your English skills have helped you immensely and so I think one of the positive trends at least in Academia is movement towards interdisciplinary studies.

    I did, however, find learning about the meaning of a story by understanding the historical context quite interesting. Maybe not in all cases. I always appreciated stories that could transcend history and have lots of relevance to today. But I also remember reading things like A Doll’s House and being bored to tears by it, until the professor explained to us how scandalous the play was for its time. :)

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