English degrees are far more useful than one would think

By Jeff Bagdigian

Matt Modica/Collegian
Matt Modica/Collegian

Too long have English majors suffered witless jokes about coffee shops and career options; too long have they endured ridicule from the likes of engineering and chemistry majors.

“You’re an English major, you say? Can I have some fries with that?”

From where does this almost universal criticism stem? Ignorance, that’s where. Now is the time to demonstrate to the ill-informed masses the benefits of an education in literature, the advantages of an in-depth understanding of syntax and grammar and the power of rhetoric and language.

An English major studies works of literature – this much is widely known and criticized. After all, what is the benefit of studying stories that were composed centuries before the modern day? A distinction must be made between a work of literature and popular fiction. Stephenie Meyer is not Edmund Spenser. Popular fiction exists to entertain, and while literature can entertain, it also instructs.

Much of the literature that an English major studies in a college course has been studied for centuries. For example, scholars and the layperson have been reading and studying Shakespeare for the better part of the past 500 years. The only way a work of fiction, like one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, can possess this sort of lasting power is if it contains multiple levels of meaning and insight.

The meaning present in Shakespeare’s writing, like all great works of literature, cannot be gleaned in a single session. Unpacking the insight within requires multiple close-readings and extensive interpretation. New interpretations of Shakespeare’s work are still being made 500 years after he first composed and arranged the words on the page.

But why study literature in the first place? Think about the author for a moment. All of the authors whom English majors study have, at one time or another, been amongst the ranks of the living; these authors grappled with many of the same profound problems that we, the denizens of the contemporary, do. These authors created literary works of art to show us how they engaged with the problems of their time, and it is through the study of these works of art that English majors and literary scholars are able to apply these lessons from antiquity to our time. Studying works of literature, and the work of literary scholars, is comparable to reading a strategy guide for a video game, where the video game is actually real life.

English majors engage these weighty problems head-on by reading the literature and through their own writing. They should be respected for their deeper insights into the machinations of the human mind . As a result of their extensive study of literature and the human condition, English majors become experts in the presentation and utilization of language both in the written and spoken word. They are familiar with the myriad tropes and nuances of language that manipulate our thoughts.

Language is an incredibly powerful instrument, as anyone knows who has read a book or listened to the lyrics of a song and has felt themselves react strongly to the words. However, language can be very subtle and ambiguous. Consider the language of political speeches and statements and the language of advertisements. We are bombarded by language on a daily basis that has been carefully composed to have a very specific effect on our minds. Language can make us feel certain ways and can be skillfully employed to manipulate our thoughts without us being consciously aware of it.

Grammar, syntax, word choice – all of these are considered by the English major. He or she is almost hyperaware of the nuances of language and how they can affect one’s thinking. A study of literature cultivates an analytical mind, and one that can look at language with a critical eye. English majors refine their critical thinking abilities every time they engage with prose, and this critical thinking can be applied to any facet of everyday life.

So why should you respect that individual standing behind the counter at your local coffee shop? They might be a lord of language, an explorer of the human condition – they just might be an English major. Tip them, and tip them well, for with the finesse and precision of a surgeon, the English major could make use of their mastery of language to manipulate your thinking in ways both profound and subtle.

Respect the major and respect the person. We proofread your papers, write your legal documents and serve you your coffee. We can manipulate your thinking in ways that you can’t comprehend. We can immortalize your shortcomings in works of fiction that will endure for millennia.

Jeff Bagdigian is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].