Pencils Down: Will the English Major Disappear?

Some say the field of study is dying. These professors won’t let it.
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photo by Tom Hermans

Two pieces of academic advice shaped my life. The first, given to me as an 18-year-old aspiring English major: “You can read books on your own and get the same education.” How seemingly sensible! And completely inaccurate! Yet I listened.

The next came almost a decade later, after a series of practical decisions led me to the most practical of places: as a web developer for an insurance company. I eyed graduate English programs the way prisoners hunt for holes in a fence. When I hesitated to apply, a co-worker advised, “Follow what makes you curious, even if it doesn’t make sense yet.” I owe her.

I found my people in those classes. I found me. My attention span expanded to the size of a great white whale and my curiosity twice that. Professors challenged me to question who told a story, who didn’t, and whether I should trust the narrator. Classmates argued for drastically different interpretations that made me reconsider my own. People complain that they never use their degrees. I live mine.

Imagine my heartbreak, then, when I read “The End of the English Major” in The New Yorker in March. Colliding trends signal doom: Thick texts intimidate digital-age attention spans; rising costs pressure students into vocational programs. A nursing degree makes you a nurse. An engineering degree makes you an engineer. The strength of an English major, its adaptability, has become its vulnerability.

How’s the English major faring here? I asked Mike Kobre, an English professor at Queens University who’s become a missionary preaching the gospel of the humanities to a generation looking elsewhere. His enthusiasm and intellect convert several gen-ed students each year. Talk to Mike for five minutes, and you, too, will be an English major by the end of the conversation.

What’s at stake if the English major disappears? “Everything?” he replied with a faint laugh. “Great books enable us to grapple with the most basic human questions. What constitutes identity? How do I relate to other people? How do I behave ethically in society? How do cultural forces shape the way I see the world and shape other people? Without the study of literature and the humanities, we’ll have a lot of people who have not been exposed to those kinds of texts and those kinds of questions.”

O captain! My captain!

The English major includes more than great books. Pilar Blitvich, linguistics professor at UNC Charlotte, is a scholar of conflict in human communication, particularly in online spaces. Ten years ago, it wasn’t much of a field. Today? Hoo boy. Last semester, Pilar taught a class in language and digital technology that explored how conspiracy theories develop and spread. (Who doesn’t know someone they’d like to register for that one?)

Pilar says the skills English classes develop are the ones employers most demand, but often don’t find, in young graduates: oral and written communication, critical thinking, multicultural awareness. “Students gain a heightened awareness,” she says, “and an awareness like that stays with them forever.” Both schools invite alumni—bank executives, poets, business owners, teachers—to share how English degrees got them where they wanted to be.

“This emphasis on vocational, career-oriented education is all about things being functional and utilitarian,” Mike says. “But if you’re going to advance in a career, you have to be able to grapple with complexity. If you’re going to live a full and rich human life, you have to be able to grapple with complexity.”

As computers get better at being computers, humans need to get better at being humans. Computers integrate existing content; humans create new ideas. Creation starts with grappling.

Artificial intelligence produces writing as accurate and clever as the internet it pulls from. Humanities folks, this is your career security.

Following my curiosity led to a career I love: self-employed writer, full-time grappler. I can attest to the number of editors and executives who complain how hard it is to find people who can craft stories and persuasive arguments for op-eds, presentations, white papers, blogs. Storytelling is big business.

Studying English is more than marketability, though. It sparks curiosity and wonder. It connects us to millennia of ideas and stories, and it invites us to add our own. So why English? Why now? Mike quotes William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.


JEN TOTA McGIVNEY is a writer in Charlotte.

Categories: The Buzz