Why English?

“Why English?”

Jeanne Laurel, 3/30/11

They say the book is dead. They say an education has to prepare you for a specific job when you graduate or else you’ve wasted four years and a whole bunch of money. They say the humanities are soooo 20th century.

English majors, of course, know better. They know not to begin their sentences with reference to the unsubstantiated, hopelessly cliched “they.”

The book

In the mid 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press started a revolution. It used letters that could be moved around from one combination to another. Much of literature from that time forward has, of course, depended on book form: floppy pages, a spine, and (in the early 1930s) the “featherweight airplane edition,” the paperback. Perhaps the paperback has caused as much of a revolution in colleges, since, without it, college students wouldn’t be buying as many books. Gutenberg’s invention created our world: revolutions in literacy, religion, science and culture came about because people had access to the thoughts in those books, and to responses and counter-responses in newspapers, magazines, and ever more print media.

In 1984, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak killed the book. They introduced the Macintosh, the first “personal computer.” The Internet followed, driving the final stake into heart of the book, the handwritten thank you note, and the English language without recourse to pictures or texting abbreviations.

But the book is very much alive. The New York Times Book Review now carries best seller lists incorporating e-book sales. The novella, that short form between the story and the novel, is enjoying a resurgence because it reads well on e-readers. Picture books are no longer for kids–now called “sequential art,” narrative presented through image has its own idiom and theoretical considerations. Perhaps the 24th century will see Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, which broke that barrier between comics and serious literature, as our era’s Chaucer.

The job

English majors cannot walk out a college’s front door, hang up a shingle and commence a career as a solo practitioner. Who pays for English major skills?

You’d be surprised. I think only Nancy McGlen and Bill Martin will recall our former English department professor, Dave Sadkin. When Dave retired, he set up a consulting business, teaching speaking, writing and thinking skills we offer our English majors in college. He was, last I heard, earning a good living at it. Who’s buying? Businesses who have hired employees from other majors–and finding that those employees lack the skills our majors are rich in.

People in finance, sciences, service industries, nonprofit organizations, arts and cultural groups don’t just sit there tossing numbers at each other–or widgets, cogs and sprockets, airline bookings, medical treatments, emergency food and shelter, pictures, and so on. Imagine a world where these objects and actions were not mediated by language and thinking skills. Imagine a world where people did not use languages, stories essentially, to talk about how to benefit all stakeholders, develop new ideas to meet a need, and so on. I don’t think I can.

English majors still have to do a little more work than pre-law, or pre-med, or MBA students to figure out where their heart’s desire is, and where the jobs are. But they have sought-after skills that can be adapted to many interests, in many kinds of economies.


Niagara University prides itself on being a liberal arts college. That means we make students courses in many disciplines, something called a general education curriculum. That means (groan!) three religion, three philosophy, and (gasp!) only  two English courses, among other things.

People shopping for an education today want to know–not a bad question–will it make money? But I don’t think these people really want to sit, like mythical dragons, atop a hoard of gold coins and baubles. They want the money to assure a good life, one that will have purpose, goals and meaning to it. These are, after all, expensive commodities.

I’m not going to claim that an English major alone can tell you how to find purpose, goals and meaning. But reading, and writing, and developing powers of analysis can help you understand what the components of such a life might be, whether you embrace or reject the lives and thoughts you are reading about. English can give you a window into what other people (fictional characters and authors) have valued in their own lives, whether you embrace or reject what they believe. English can help you know that you have found value, when you have found value.

In conclusion, I downloaded a new app for my iPod this morning. (I do a lot of reading on my iPod these days.) It’s an app from American Express called “Open Forum,” designed for small business owners, connected to LinkedIn, offering “the latest articles in management, marketing and lifestyle.” Here is the beginning of the very first article I happened to open: “W. H. Auden once said: ‘Choice of attention–to pay attention to this and ignore that–is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.’” How wonderful to see a business magazine quoting the 20th century British poet! I think you chose the right major: English.