English as a Major: A New Found Respect

October 20, 2007

I’m convinced. English isn’t a complete waste of a major. I’ve seen the light. And now I’m saved.

No, I’m not switching to an English major. And no, I didn’t actually ever think that English was a complete waste of a major. I just didn’t see the point in going to school, paying 20000+ a year, to learn how to read and write. I’ve done that very much on my own, for free [well, for the price of books, internet access, and paper and pens].

Then I had a conversation with my friend Chris and everything changed. We started off talking about how strange some pre-med majors could be. Okay, I get chemistry, biochemistry, and especially biology. I even get ESS [for those not fluent in abbreviations, that’s Exercise and Sports Science]. A physics pre-med major? Yeah, kind of weird, but I can see it.

But English major pre-med? Now that’s completely wacky. But it’s happened. Believe me, it’s happened.

And then we started talking about what an English major actually does. Basically, they’re at college to learn how to think more clearly. Usually, for them, that involves a lot of reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and writing. Because in all honesty, the best way to clear up your thoughts is to put them on paper. And no one gets more practice in that area than our friends in the English department. Well, other than our friends in the History department.

But what does all that reading and writing actually do? Where does it actually get them at the end of the day? What pragmatic value does it have.

And then the epiphany struck. Our friends in the English department are the twins of our friends in the Mathematics department. What Mathematics is to the sciences English is to the humanities. Let me clarify, starting from the math example.

Let’s be honest: a lot of the math that students learn in college is pure mental weight training: you’re never going to actually use it in the real world, but it’s still useful to have some sort of idea how to think like a mathematician. Sure, you may never have to take the second derivative of a triple integral while balancing a combinatorics text book on stomach and reciting π to 50 decimal places. But all that stuff will build up some major grey matter that may come in handy some day. And going even further, you have two kinds of math: theoretical and practical. The theoretician gets a little ‘excited’ about defining what ‘1+1’ means. The practical mathematician, well, we call him a physicist.

The same things hold for English majors. Sure, you may never actually have to analyze Shakespeare’s 10th sonnet, or write a report about the sexual overtones in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but those activities build up the critical thinking skills that will serve you later in life. And similar to mathematics, English comes in two flavors: the critics and the creators. The critics shell themselves into a single author and then pour their heart and soul into something that only about ten people in the world will actually care about. The creators write works of fiction, journalism, activism, whatever. You name it, they’ve written it. And sometimes the things they write change the world.

So it comes down to this: math and english are the last remaining strongholds of the liberal arts tradition. They literally teach you how to think [and not much else]. The engineer, the chemist, even the biologist, is a learning a trade. They learn the thinking skills, but in an applied setting. The english / math major just gets the scaffold and fills it as they see fit.

And that explains why I so prefer a study-track in the natural sciences: I loath things that lack pragmatic value. Don’t get me wrong. I love math [when it can help me solve a problem in science]. I love reading [when it can help to clarify my thinking on some real world problem]. But as you can see, I, personally, can’t stand the abstraction.

But that’s not to say the abstraction is somehow bad. Some people thrive on that. They’re far brighter than I. And I tip my hat to them.

So the next time someone tells you they’re an English major, take a long hard look. You may be in the presence of a great thinker.


5 Responses to “English as a Major: A New Found Respect”

  1. dave in the back said

    I’m not sure if I see the light yet, lol. There’s a lot of people in my opinion that go to college just to go to college then become an english major just because they like the classes, then never actually get any practical value from it. It’s only the people that would be able to make it on their own just from the way that they are that would be able to do anything with an english degree. Sure, school might help you, but school isn’t going to teach you how to write something that’s going to change the world, or create some government funded organization. You have to do that all for yourself. And I can pretty much bet you that the average english major hasn’t a clue about how to do any of that.

  2. Madison! Oh my?! said

    I happen to be English Pre-Med, and besides the advangage of not being nearly brain dead when I reach medical school, I disagree with the sentiment English does not teach a trade. I does, it teaches you to be a psychologist, a teacher, a writer, and a thinker. (and for those who argue thinking is not a trade, would our world not be richer if being learned to think?) Instead of concentraing on what will get me in and choosing my major for statisical value (not that all science majors have gone in their field with murky motives! Some are genuinley interested!)So with the first comment. Yes I have learned practical value. I have learned how to put my whole heart into something that might not have immediate results( a need in medicine) and I have learned analytical skills that are invaluable. For those that do need statistics. English, History, and Music majors are proven to do better on the MCAT,and on a ratio of applicants have a higher acceptance rate than any science major. Chow

  3. Lisa said

    Thanks! I really like the article.

  4. Tarina said

    I’m a Harvard student who’s pre-med and considering an English major. “Completely wacky” indeed, according to popular sentiment. It’s refreshing to find a natural sciences-oriented person taking a respectful stance. Also, great insight into the analogy between math/sciences and English/humanities. Are you SURE you’re not an English person? :)

  5. Some Dude said

    I’m an English Pre-Med major, hoping to eventually do an English/Biology double major to get into vet school.

    I would agree with you that English is far too abstract to line you up with a certain career path, but that’s what med school is for!

    People like to clump people into easily definable categories. There really is no “English major personality” or “engineering major personality”. It’s all about the individual. You can major in women’s studies and go to med school and become the best doctor in the world. Or you can be an engineering major, graduate with a 2.5, and work for some toy company designing Chinese toys. What really matters is drive and determination. Major means nothing.

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