In Defense of the English Major

3 min read

If a job prospect can write a solid analysis of The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser (pictured here), she can probably handle those internal communications memos you need written.
If a job prospect can write a solid analysis of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (pictured here), she can probably also handle those internal communications memos.

If you regularly hire people—particularly in the fields of marketing and advertising—here’s some friendly advice: Hire more English majors.

Now, that might sound counterintuitive to some of you. Time was, English majors were the butt of nearly every joke about the failings of post-secondary education. A good friend of mine—who, like me, was an English major—is fond of reminding me that we actually paid money to study our native tongue. We’re a self-deprecating bunch.

These days, though, we should be blazing with confidence. Because all that time we spent reading and discussing Spenser, Conrad, Joyce, Baldwin, DeLillo, and others prepared us to do the one thing that most needs doing in today’s world: write.

Once ghettoized by TV culture, the art of writing has come roaring back to relevancy. Today, everybody writes. We practically live in our email accounts. People ages 18-49 use their smartphones more often to write text messages than to make phone calls. Writing is central to our lives, and no college degree does a better job of turning out strong writers than English.

When I decided to study English 20 years ago, I never could have guessed this would happen. I figured I’d end up a restaurant manager or something. Back then, email was only available to a select few, and text messaging was hardly a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. If you wanted to communicate with a friend, you called or wrote a letter. And who wrote letters?

In the early ‘90s, mainstream culture viewed writing a lot like they view collecting vinyl records today: Fine for hipsters and old people, but that’s about it. Non-English majors often hired English majors to write their papers for them. They felt writing was a boutique activity to be practiced by hobbyists—certainly not necessary for a successful career.

But today, writing is required not only for a successful career, but for life. And though nearly everyone, technically, can write, English majors have the training to do it at an uncommonly high level. They don’t just write; they think. Analysis and critique are the meat and potatoes of English study. You critique the text; you critique the critics; you critique your classmates. You write a paper and receive criticism from your professor—whose judgment you critique most harshly of all. Unlike other areas of study where students are receptacles for information, English majors are hardwired to be skeptical of information. That’s an invaluable asset in any employee.

Most valuable of all in an English major is her capacity for ideas. In her four years in college, she studied everything from postcolonial poetry to feminist art house cinema to African-American folktales. She absorbed more ideas from a more diverse set of thinkers than any of her college peers. And she was required to have ideas about those ideas. She didn’t just read Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and marvel at its minimalist jazzy brilliance. She connected it to themes in the early work of pioneering rap artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One. She compared Brooks’s oblique social commentary to the direct, fiery activist journalism of Sister Souljah. She thought hard about what she read, and she worked through those thoughts to produce ideas. And ideas are the currency of our time.

I know some of you are rolling your eyes. “Does the English major meet the technical qualifications for any job right out of school?” Probably not. “Is she pretentious?” Almost certainly. “Does she spell ‘color’ as ‘colour’ because she finds it ‘aesthetically superior?’” I can’t guarantee she doesn’t.

But hey, cut her some slack. She’s fresh out of college. Chances are good she’ll break those bad habits soon enough and be the kind of asset you’ll be glad you invested in. Just don’t get her going on the civil disobedience of Thoreau and its parallels in modern computer-mediated communication environments. There are some rabbit holes nobody needs to go down.