It’s no secret that the BA (or MA or PhD) in English doesn’t have a lot going for it—at least on the surface. Studying English can become a self-perpetuating rat wheel of sorts: you study English so you can study more English so that you can teach others who want to study English. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to get into publishing—I like seeing tangible results of my work (books)—although publishing itself is also another more drawn-out rat wheel: I like to read books, so I make books so that I can read more books.
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker wrote a wonderful article titled “Why Teach English?” in which he discusses this conundrum. There are, he says, usually two defenses offered for why English majors should exist:
1. English majors make better people
2. English majors make for better societies
Neither of these is necessarily true. Personally, my feathers get just as ruffled as any other English majors’ do when someone doubts the necessity of my calling. I do think I’m a better person for reading, but I can’t really claim that I’m going to change the world. I’m just not that interested. I’m too busy reading.
There happens to be a good number of people who also enjoy reading, and who want to discuss it with me (hello, Literary Wives!). That is why English degrees exist: we’ve organized and legitimized our fun, disguised it as a professional study. Gopnik accurately says,
“So why have English majors? Well, because many people like books. Most of those like to talk about them after they’ve read them, or while they’re in the middle. Some people like to talk about them so much that they want to spend their lives talking about them to other people who like to listen. Some of us do this all summer on the beach, and others all winter in a classroom. One might call this a natural or inevitable consequence of literacy. And it’s this living, irresistible, permanent interest in reading that supports English departments, and makes sense of English majors.”
The truth, of course, is that there may not be an altruistic purpose for English majors. We’re selfish creatures. Not that we don’t contribute at all to society—we certainly do—but even if we didn’t, we’d still be busy reading books. We’re pursuing happiness, as is our unalienable right.
“No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence.”
When I started college, I was a double major in Christian Ministry and English. Within a couple weeks of my first classes—one a Christian Life, Faith, and Ministry course and one a writing course—I dropped the Christian Ministry major. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I’m just so much more passionate about English. Throughout the years, I’ve flirted with other career options, something that might be more lucrative or more “purpose-ful”: teaching? paralegal? But every time I considered something else, I found myself coming back to books. Perhaps it’s bad that our culture so closely ties happiness, career, and identity. Perhaps we’d all be a bit happier if we didn’t look to our careers to fulfill us. But even if (God forbid) books couldn’t be my career, I would always find the most happiness in reading. I’ll keep spinning my wheel and I’ll never regret becoming an English major, because you can’t put a price on happiness.
So what do you think? Are English degrees worth it? Why were you an English major, and do you regret it?