In Defense of Studying English

Ha ha ha ohhh those silly English majors, they’ll do anything to get out of doing work! Take some real classes, ya slacker! Can ya use a word that’s under five syllables? Spark Notes!

Fine, to be perfectly honest, I did laugh at this video, and, to be even more honest, it was partially out of recognition. But, especially after thinking about it for a bit, I find it more problematic than amusing, because it speaks to a troubling, widespread attitude towards studying literature. See, the moment one decides to study English, one takes on the role of apologist. I’m sorry goes the constant, implicit repetition. I’m sorry I’m not doing something productive, something tangible. I’m sorry I’m not doing something practical or quantifiable. Secretly, every English major wishes she were good at math.

My mother’s immediate reaction, when I told her I wanted to be an English major, was to ask what kind of job I would get after graduation. Journalismteachingorlawschool, I answered immediately. Really, that’s the most common reaction most people have when you tell them your major. So this is in no way meant to condemn my mother, who is always supportive and encouraging, especially since, it is true, the direct employment opportunities for English majors are pretty sparse. But I do find it upsetting, unreasonable, and a little bit insulting that “being an English major” has become a sort of shorthand joke these days for directionless mooching about.

Look, I’m guilty of this myself; I rarely defend my discipline, instead finding it easier – and, frankly, much less pedantic – to joke about my aptitude for bullshit. And, to be honest, when I read something in my homework like “But the particular form this principle of naturalistic arbitrariness, this lack of hierarchic structure, may take is not decisive” I have trouble placing it on either side of the line between insight and academic indulgence. Because yeah, literary theorists do have a disturbing habit of examining the view from up their own asses. And sometimes, yeah, I lose sight of why, exactly, I care about Neo-Marxist-Formalism or whatever (which sounds like a science fiction movie but unfortunately isn’t). And yet, in my opinion, this feeling is the exception, not the rule. This is the feeling of 2 am, when you’ve been reading since class ended at noon and there are still hundreds of pages to go and you’re tired and bored and really couldn’t care less about why post-modernism is destroying America. So while I can understand how skepticism about the validity of studying literature can exist, particularly criticism about the expression thereof, I don’t necessarily think that that is a justifiable critique. Because, see, critiques of the kind of sentence I referenced above seem to assume that, as a rule, any use of elevated language is merely intended to hide the fact that the speaker has nothing to say.

But this simply isn’t fair. People extol the values of simplicity – who was it that said that if you can’t say something simply, you don’t really understand it? – but I feel that those who do so miss an important point. Language, you see, is fun. And when used properly, it can be molded in such a way so as to express the exact, specific meaning the speaker is trying to convey. Take synonyms. Nobody really understands synonyms – they don’t just exist so you don’t have to use the word “very” or “but” over and over in an essay. Synonyms are more like categories than reflections, applicable to similar situations but each with a particular environment to which they are perfectly suited. So, I don’t use big words to make other people feel inferior or myself look smart; I use them because they mean exactly how I want. And so, while that sentence above may seem unnecessarily complex and impenetrable, it captures the exact meaning that Lukacs wanted it to, and any modification would alter that meaning.

Because, see, that’s what English majors do. We get to the heart of meaning. We get past the other crap to find universal truths. I recently discussed this in reference to Shakespeare, but, in general, it’s that drive to get at those commonalities that makes studying English so much fun. Because, sure, it’s easy to scoff at somebody claiming that the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s book represents “THE FUNDAMENTAL ASPIRATIONS OF THE  COMMONALITIES OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE,” but that’s not really what we do. Because what the mockingbird actually represents is that moment in childhood when you realize that the world is a dark place and there are no heroes and all you can really rely on is your own wit and strength and beauty – and it also represents the moment immediately following that, when you realize that the world is also wonderful and there are amazing things everywhere and life is a fantastic thing to have. Literature lets you get at these truths; it’s an infinite commons filled with millions of people searching for and playing with and offering questions and answers.

That’s why I love literature: it dares to hope that there is something common to humanity, something comprehensible about life. So, yes, I tell my mother about my “entirely marketable analytic and communication skills” and I tell my professors about “the individualist discordance in the hegemonic bourgeois intuitive discourse” and I tell my friends about how I can “bullshit a twelve page paper.” But that’s not the important stuff. I study English because I love stories, because I love understanding stories, and because I love understanding how stories transform differences into parallels and parallels into reflections.

So will my English degree be worth as much as your engineering or computer science one? In terms of not living in a refrigerator carton after graduation, no. But in terms of intellectual validity, absolutely. Perhaps my studying literature doesn’t end with something you can hold in your hand, and considering how obsessed our society is with that sort of thing, I can’t see general opinion of English majors improving any time soon. But the world needs passion, and it needs creativity, and inquisitiveness, and people who care about understanding other people. And that is why I am proud of my discipline, and why I love being an English major.

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10 responses to “In Defense of Studying English

  1. When people asked me why I did my MA in literature I always replied “because I can”. I think it takes courage to study something you love instead of something that will rake in the cash and accolades for productivity. You said it beautifully when you said “the world needs passion, and it needs creativity, and inquisitiveness, and people who care about understanding other people”.

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  2. Thanks, Stef, I appreciate that. It does get discouraging at times, so I wrote this partially as a reminder of why I love it so much. It’s so nice to hear that other people feel the same way.

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  3. As an English major myself, I absolutely loved this part of your essay:

    “Because yeah, literary theorists do have a disturbing habit of examining the view from up their own asses.”

    Brought back memories of reading all those shit-eating, incomprehensible literary theorists. One time I was in my honors thesis class discussing Deridah and I said “I think all this literary theory actually takes away from the process of understanding books.” My professor responded, “Why is that?” I said, “It’s like after you finish having sex. Sometimes it’s better to shut the fuck up and smoke a cigarette.”

    That’s how I think about literature in general. It’s not like mathematics. You can’t quantify the quality of an author or the nature of your connection with it. There’s no formula that will tell you the difference between good and bad books. Nor should you try. What you feel is what you know.

    The advantage of an English major over, say, mathematics, however, is that training yourself to be a good reader and writer is another way of becoming a clear thinker. And thinking clearly is applicable at any job, relationship, or situation in life. Grats on your English majorology. ^^

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  4. Wobula, that made me laugh =]
    And yes, I definitely agree that learning how to think and express yourself is one of the huge benefits of studying English. I feel like sometimes we get so caught up in all the crap that we forget that, and we also forget the reasons we went to this field in the first place.

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  5. this is wonderful! i definitely agree. it’s just like he says in Dead Poet’s Society. yay for the liberal arts 🙂

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  6. Thanks for this reflection. When I once told fellow students that I was studying a Bachelor of Arts (as we refer to it in Australia), I commonly got asked the question, “Pure?”. As in, “Sure, but what is the degree that you’re combining with your Arts degree?”. (It turned out there was no combo pack with this deal.) It’s enriched my life in so many ways, I can’t even begin to describe it. Although, occasionally I get the impulse to say “heterogeneity” in everyday conversations – because it’s exactly what I want to say to get to the specific meaning. That doesn’t go down so well.

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