The ballad of the misunderstood English major

In just a few weeks, I’ll don a doofy blue cap and gown and graduate from Wheaton College with a B.A. in English. Right on cue, USA TODAY published an article titled “What’s a B.A. in English worth anymore?”

The article picks up on the familiar tug-of-war between liberal arts  and specialization:

There was a time when college was a place where young adults could expand their horizons. But as tuitions increase, student debt mounts and job prospects for recent grads remain uncertain, Timm and his alma mater represent increasing rarities in higher education: students and schools whose primary goals center on a broad-based education in the arts and sciences. Today, students and parents say college should prepare students for a good job.

The writer, Mary Beth Marklein, notes that some business schools are going the other way by incorporating liberal arts components into their programs. Still, the onus apparently rests on liberal arts colleges to justify their existence — to tout their strong internship programs, for example, or the career success of their alumni.

So, what’s a B.A. in English worth, anyway? Allow me to share my perspective as a soon-to-be English B.A. holder. True, I have not locked down a six-figure post-graduation job to stir the envy of my pre-med or pre-law peers. I’m following my passion into a career in journalism. But after four years at Wheaton College, I’m still immensely grateful for my English major, which has trained me to love learning for its own sake. (Just try putting a price tag on “a love of learning.”) 

I’m a fan of the liberal arts model (not without some reservations — more on that below). But first, here are just a few of the reasons I’m holding high my B.A. in English as I approach graduation:

  • I know how to write an email. I know, you were probably expecting something more impressive at the top of this list. Who goes to college to learn how to write emails? But in journalism — or any job, for that matter — email is the lifeblood of daily work. Knowing how to write a clear, concise email gets you farther than you’d think. And English classes teach you how to write clearly.
  • I’ve encountered some of the currents of thought that have strongly shaped my culture. I learned about postmodernism, feminism, civil rights movements, theology, consumerism, naturalism and transcendentalism in the pages of novels, essays and poetry. And now that I have thought deeply about those things in the classroom and the library, I’m better equipped to discuss them in “real life.” Literature is supremely practical.
  • I’ve been called out on my B.S. Some people say that it’s easy to write essays or fiction for English classes because you can make yourself sound smart without having to know what you’re talking about. Though I understand that opinion, it’s not my experience. I had excellent professors at Wheaton College who cared deeply about every word and sentence of my essays. I read my work aloud to 20 peers. I argued passionately for my interpretation of a novel over lunch with English major friends. I sat through writing workshops where my short stories were picked apart. These people were hard on my words and ideas, and they made them better. My halfhearted thesis statements and muddy arguments couldn’t survive.
  • I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty of language. As a journalist, I now spend my days knee-deep in words, wading around for the sharpest, most evocative descriptions of our world. It doesn’t feel like work when you love language.
  • English has been my portal to every other discipline. English is the most liberal-artsy of all the liberal arts degrees, and it was easy to draw connections from English to my history, philosophy and science classes. My beloved novels, poems and essays in English classes lit up the world and made me a better student overall.
  • I believe that writing well is synonymous with thinking well and speaking well. What job does not require critical thinking and strong communication skills? After taking college English classes, I think more clearly and speak with more confidence. That helps me in every area of life, not least in job interviews.

But here’s the catch: My liberal arts education in the classroom wasn’t enough. I gained invaluable “real-world” experience at the student newspaper and three off-campus internships. I traveled and worked in Europe. I networked with alumni and attended journalism conferences. Without those experiences, I would be ready for graduate school or academia but woefully unprepared to begin a professional career. And those were all things I had to seek out on my own in addition to classes.

More specifically, as a journalist, an English major is not really enough. Journalism favors strong writers who also have technical skills and subject expertise in government, education, business, politics, religion or science. In journalism, knowing how to write is just the common denominator. If I had to do it all over again, would I have still chosen to major in English? Yes. But I would have added to my major by focusing on one or two other disciplines, like sociology, Spanish, computer science or education. Those would have served me well.

The good news for me — for anyone, no matter what kind of college they attend — is that my education isn’t over at graduation. I’ll learn more at every place I work; I’ll read books at night and on the weekends; I’ll travel across the U.S. and around the world; I’ll teach myself new technical skills by playing around with programs on my computer and phone. Heck, maybe some day I’ll even go to graduate school. But I am convinced that I will never — no, never — regret the excellent education I received at my little liberal arts college in Illinois.

Related:

Humor website McSweeny’s recently posted a delightful, satirical essay called “The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid Is Your Liberal Arts Degree.”

Some of my English professors attempt to answer questions about “marketability” of the English major in a page on the Wheaton College website called “Why pursue an English major?”

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2 thoughts on “The ballad of the misunderstood English major

  1. Great post! It took some work for me to translate my education into a professional skill set, but I wholeheartedly stand by my decision to pursue a liberal arts degree (and English and International Relations majors).

  2. My BA is BS so I’m going back to school. | My Present Self

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