As I was researching for an essay on the perceptions of different majors, I was greeted with a whole lot of English major hate. These articles were brutal, with one prompting readers to guess which majors are the most stressful and immediately noting, “Hint: It’s not English.” English was consistently on the list of easiest majors and many articles suggested pursuing graduate school or a second major to get more marketable skills. While I am not going to refute that there are plenty of majors with more direct career paths and higher starting salaries than English, the relentless narrative of English majors being lost potential with a future of inevitable financial instability and a lack of employability are unfair and unfounded.
A commonly dismissed advantage of an English degree is that the skills taught in English courses are useful in almost every career path. Analyzing seemingly minute stylistic decisions in writings across all subject areas teaches you how to read between the lines and support that analysis. These skills are a constant exercise in attention to detail and persuasion, and English courses give students ample opportunity to practice them. While you likely will never need to deconstruct an Emily Dickinson poem or explore the extent to which “Jane Eyre” is a feminist novel in your future job, the critical thinking and communication skills these tasks require are applicable anywhere. Regardless of the context, the ability to articulate a message, support that message and create meaning within that message is a widely marketable skill. On a more basic level, being able to cogently write an email to your colleagues, critically read a proposal or paperwork and clearly communicate your thoughts are all fundamental job responsibilities that the English curriculum highlights.
Many generalizations about English majors are rooted in overthinking how much your major choice actually matters. With only about 27% of recent graduates in 2015 working in a job relating to their major, majoring in English does not automatically mean spending your life reading books, grading papers or whatever else people think English majors do after graduation. People with English degrees go on to work in a variety of fields and often catch up in earnings with those who hold science, technology, engineering and math degrees by 40. Considering the skills that employers find most important, this potentially surprising phenomenon makes sense. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the three skills that are the most sought-after by employers are communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team. These desirable skills are deeply ingrained in the English curriculum, which sets students up for communicating and working with others.
For whatever reason, many people are unable to see the connection between the demand for employees who know how to communicate and the means by which that is achieved. English classes foster the skills that enable you to think critically about a variety of subjects and clearly express your observations. With the exception of some career paths, like engineering, many employers have little to no interest in the specifics of your major — they simply want someone who can think. An English degree exceeds that expectation.
While the ability to communicate is a commonly cited advantage of majoring in English, the unsung hero of the English major is the ability to empathize. In the process of reading books, poems and essays from authors whose perspectives you would otherwise be completely unaware of, you learn how to decenter your own perspective and listen to those of others. As one of my English professors at the University of Alabama explained toward the conclusion of our class, reading can be a form of defamiliarizing yourself and English courses can help facilitate that defamiliarization. And beyond the readings, the discussions in English classes are experiments in how you react to often abstract opinions that are different from your own. Listening to your classmates come up with entirely different meanings from the same exact text you read not only highlights your classmates’ interests, fears and goals but also your own. This act of listening is rarely taught but endlessly valuable. Without listening, there is no empathy. Without empathy, there is no understanding. Without understanding, there is no connection. English classes have taught me to connect with my classmates, connect with authors I’ve never met, connect with my professors and connect with myself.
From public relations to computer science, I’ve had a lot of majors. And I’ve never felt the need to justify myself as much as I have as an English major. Perhaps I’m just being sensitive, but it can be disheartening to hear people continually question if you’re ever going to find a job or assume there is only one career path open to you (as of now, no, I am not planning on becoming a teacher). So this article is in defense, and in support, of the English major: You’re not going to be forever unemployed, your intelligence is not contingent on how people perceive your major and you have some really cool and valuable skills.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.