By Daniel Strawhun, A&E Editor
“What is your major?”
All college students have had to answer this trite, timeworn question at least once during their academic careers. And while the banality of the question itself is enough to make some people cringe, we English majors—that is, those of us who have given ourselves to the study of literature and rhetoric—have additional cause for recoil. That is because our answer to the question is inevitably met with a further question: “English? What are you going to do with THAT?”
We all have different ways of responding to this incredulous interlocutor, who perhaps for a brief moment thought we had simply mispronounced the word “engineering.” Some of us are quick to cite the practical applications of a degree in English: editing, technical writing, journalism, and law are just a few fields in which an acute understanding and precise application of language are paramount. Others of us put on self-deprecatory airs. “That’s a good question,” we say, acknowledging that our futures are indeed unclear. Still others of us claim that we will teach, whether or not we actually intend to. Or we simply mumble something vague about grad school, preferring to defer our answer to a later date.
What we should say instead, but unfortunately never do, is that we are not going to “do” anything with our English degree, that is, unless becoming an educated member of society capable of well-formed, perspicacious thought is considered “doing something”—which within the context of our shallow, extroverted, and materialistic culture, it certainly is not.
A degree in English will not directly contribute to the development of infrastructure, technology, medicine, or anything else that is practical and external. That is because the study of English (and, more broadly, the humanities) is a fundamentally introverted pursuit focused on the development of the self, and the resultant primary value of such a pursuit never escapes the self. A degree in English is therefore worthless in the context of American populist culture because it serves the individual while offering little or no benefit to the masses.
So no—as far as the current culture is concerned, we are not going to “do” anything with our English degrees. A degree in English serves the individual, not the collective. We ought to be clear and forthright about this rather than attempt to justify our introverted choices with an extroverted system of values.
Furthermore, when faced with this question, we ought to point out and object to the speaker’s vulgar implication that the pursuit of higher education should always be an undertaking motivated primarily by the promise of financial gain. “What are you going to do with THAT?” is just an oblique way of saying, “What are you going to produce with that (in order to exact compensation)?” A degree in English is not a means to an end but an end unto itself. The university is not a trade school, although the middle-class now largely treats it that way. As English majors, we do not simply seek to learn a profitable skill that we can perform in exchange for compensation; rather, we seek to develop our intellect and emotions for the sake of the development itself.