When people hear that someone is majoring in English, chances are they think, “Oh, you are going to teach.” Or, “Man, what in God’s name are you going to do with a degree in English?” And it’s true, English majors largely end up as teachers; however, they bring a lot to the table that other majors may lack, or to be slightly more specific, may not receive training in. But there’s lots that English majors can do and companies who hire them understand just how valuable they are. This essay, though, is not about what students who choose to major in the humanities can do once they graduate; instead, I want to make the case that the humanities, despite what the push toward STEM fields might have us believe, is still worth it. English, as an area of study, is part of the humanities. The humanities comes from the Latin humanitas, or humanitatis, meaning, “Human nature; humanity; kindness, compassion, human feeling; courtesy; culture, refinement, civilization”. The area of study itself is supposed to teach us how to be good hoomons. So, what makes a good human?
In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis discuss why learning to write well makes us better people. And that is where I would like to start. Their evidence includes claims such as, do no harm, have respect for your readers, and follow the golden rule. I contend that English majors do this better than anyone because we begin not with the things that we want to say, but rather, with what others have already said. That is to say, English majors have a deep understanding of the fact that writing participates in a conversation, and to participate successfully we must first start by listening, not shouting or interjecting. Those who excel in this field understand that an “argument” is not a fight. Thus, majors possess the valuable ability to step in to the shoes of an other before putting forth their own fact-based opinions. They are not out to brow beat anyone into submission. That would be bad form.
Because of this–beginning with what others have said–English majors communicate better than any other major coming out of college—in both written and oral communication. Rather than attacking differing points of view and arguing that someone else is wrong, writers preparing to wade through the mucky waters of a debate or discussion use phrases such as, “I see where you’re coming from”, “Your point about [x] is interesting”, or, “I agree with you on topic x”. I can’t speak for every educator out there, but the best teachers/professors/educators I know teach students to start from a point of agreement, not one of discord. It’s easy to see how this translates from the classroom to the real world, from the hypothetical to the concrete. In a world where businesses and corporations alike seek employees—especially recent college grads—who know how to communicate, collaborate, and make ethical decisions, the art of speaking, writing, and communicating in the fashion I have discussed, suggests the candidate is willing to work with and listen to others while at the same time not being afraid to voice their own opinion. This is leadership; leadership is not telling others what to do, but working together to make everyone on the team better; and leaders that don’t listen do not possess this quality. It is this placing of one’s self within the greater conversation that makes the humanities major such a valuable asset to any company or business seeking a new employee.
Now, this is not to say that an English major is right for every and any job, as there are certainly many career fields that require highly specialized and narrow foci or expertise that can only be gained through studying that discipline: a chemist for instance, or a geological surveyor. No amount or quality of discussion and empathy will help a body understand topographical maps, geographic and geologic data sets or chemical equations. This must, at the outset, be learned in a classroom or a lab setting.
Even the types of risk-taking, or outright failure, that English majors learn–as opposed to a STEM student–early on is a good thing, if one learns from their experience. One of these risks involves being open to criticism. The very nature of the dialogue posed above suggests to others that 1) a person from an English background is listening, 2) such a one also values what they hear, and 3) leaves the door open for discussion and continued communication, rather than slamming it in someone’s face to end the debate. Take, for instance, this template from Gerald Graff’s and Kathy Berkenstein’s landmark work, They Say / I say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing: “Yet some readers may challenge my view by insisting that [objection here]”. Or this one, that entertains the opposition: “At this point I would like to raise some objections that have been inspired by the skeptic in me. She feels that I have been ignoring the complexities of the situation.” This kind of writing strengthens, not weakens, the author’s argument. It shows, again, that the author not only listens to what others have to say, but also that he or she entertains the possibility of being wrong. In other words, the author is not so conceited or arrogant as to think that the only point of view that matters or contains substance is their own.
Up to this point, I’ve primarily been writing about writing, or, as it’s known in the field, Rhetoric and Composition, which, although part of the English major, is distinct from what most people may think of when they think of what it means to be an English major. When most people think English, odds are they’re thinking about reading works by authors such as Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and American works such as Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird, i.e. Literature, fiction. Yet, even here, the English-man or -woman brings quite a lot to the table.
The great irony of literature is that by reading lies, fiction, stories made up or based only in part on truth, we learn something real about what it means to be human. I believe one of the most powerful moments in all of literature is the ending of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Published in 1939 the novel tells the story of one family’s attempt to escape the consequences of the Dust Bowl by moving to California, from Oklahoma, in the 1930s. Steinbeck’s novel relates the conditions that tens of thousands of families endured as they fled to California; however, and due to the Great Depression, those families found themselves little better off than from where they had come. The end of the novel depicts the Joad family’s encounter with a starving man and his son. The man hadn’t eaten in six days, giving everything to his children so they could live. One of his sons begins this part of the dialogue
“Starvin’. Got sick in the cotton. He ain’t et for 6 days.”
Ma walk to the corner and looked down at the man. He was about fifty, his whiskery face gaunt, and his open eyes were vague and staring. The boy stood beside her. “Your pa?” Ma asked.
“Yeah! Says he wasn’ hungry, or he just et. Give me the food. Now he’s too weak. Can’t hardly move.
The boy was at her side again, explaining, “I didn’t know. He said he et, or he wasn’ hungry. Las’ night I went an’ bust a winda an’ stoled some bread. Made ‘im chew ‘er down. But he puked it all up, an’ then he was weaker. Got to have soup or milk. You folks got money to git milk?”
Ma said, “Hush”. Don’ worry. We’ll figger somepin out.”
Suddenly the boy cried, “He’s dyin’, I tell you! He’s starvin’ to death, I tell you.”
“Hush,” said Ma. She looked at papaw and uncle John standing helplessly gazing at the sick man. She looked at Rose of Sharon huddled in the comforter. Ma’s eyes passed Rose of Sharon’s eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women looked deep into each other. The girls breath came short and gasping.
She said, “Yes.”
Ma smiled. “I knowed you would. I knowed!” She looked down at her hands, tight-locked in her lap.
Rose of Sharon whispered, “Will—will you all—go out?” The rain whisked lightly on the roof.
Ma leaned forward and with her palm she brushed the tousled hair back from her daughter’s forehead, and she kissed her on the forehead. My got up quickly. “Come on, you fellas,” she called. “You come out in the toolshed.”
Ruthie open her mouth to speak. “Hush,” Ma said. “and get.” She herded them through the door, drew the boy with her; and she closed the squeaking door.
For a minute Rose of Sharon’s sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “you got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
As powerful a scene as ever there was in literature. The fuller context of this scene is that Rose of Sharon’s, or “Rosasharn”, as her family calls her, pregnancy ends in a still birth. But she uses her milk, the gift of life, to sustain a dying man. The symbolism here is powerful. Milk represents fertility, and plenty, as well as immortality and knowledge. A man who has given his life, by refusing to eat so that his own children may live, is in return given life by a woman who has lost part of her’s. No, the family does not have the money to buy the milk the boy asks for; but they, through Rosasharn, give so much more; they give everything. In this single scene Steinbeck somehow manages to encapsulate the sum of human experience: suffering, the will to live, empathy and charity. And through this work of fiction, we as an audience become better people.
The hard truth here is that English majors, unless they find fame in fiction, journalism, or go into marketing or business, will ultimately make less money than those who choose to major in the sciences, law or medicine. In many cases, far less. But no one chooses English as a major out of a desire to become wealthy. I am sure there are exceptions to this, as people dream of writing a best-selling novel or memoir, but by and large, English majors choose English for the sake of itself. Majors choose this field for the same reasons they choose Philosophy or History: for the pure love of wrestling with ideas and concepts not their own. Ideas and concepts that bring us closer to the meaning of life. And even if we never figure that out we will be at peace in that unknowing, because we will know that we are not alone; we will understand not only that suffering is part of the human condition and necessary part of becoming human, but also that, in many instances, on the other side of suffering lay wisdom.
Get out there; make a difference.
Fischer, Bob and Nathan Nobis. “Why Writing Better Will Make You a Better Person”. The Chronicle of Higher Ed. June 4, 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Writing-Better-Will-Make/246406
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Berkenstein. They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd Edition. Norton, 2014.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Franklin Library, 1983.
Traupman, John C. New College Latin & English Dictionary. Bantam Books, 2007.