What Good Is an English Degree?
William McGurn dropped the gauntlet today in his Wall Street Journal column, which earnestly asks, "Is Majoring in English Worth It?" Citing data that show that English majors typically earn less than their STEM-major peers as well as how 1 in 5 now regret their choice of major (80 percent do not...), Mr. McGurn puts the blame on the politically correct, social justice warrior–turn that most English departments have taken in recent decades. Gone are the days when literature students read Shakespeare and writing majors learned the formalities of Strunk and White English; they have been replaced by the belief that anything at all -- even a non-written thing -- is a "text" and writers are supposed to be true to themselves rather than the Queen's English. While Mr. McGurn makes some good points, I'm concerned by the general disdain for the humanities coming from both sides of the political spectrum in recent years. My college and graduate school career straddled the turn of the millennium, and I'm proud to be an English and history major. I attended Taylor University, a small, liberal arts college in the middle of Indianan cornfields, taking an English literature course taught by a Columbia University Ph.D. who had been friends with Art Garfunkel and my writing classes from a professor who had earned his M.F.A. at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. I especially enjoyed my critical theory class, chewing on the "obtuse" -- as another literature professor called them -- Continental philosophers such as Foucault, Lacan and Levi-Strauss. I became adept at waiting until 11 p.m. the night before a paper was due for inspiration to strike, realizing that Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" was perfect for a psychoanalytic critique. My paper even impressed my professor enough that she encouraged me to present it at an undergraduate conference at Butler University. In short, my college classes thought me how to think, even if I rarely thought beyond intuiting what what necessary to achieve the goal -- an A -- on any given assignment. My Bachelor's degree prepared me to excel in an English M.A. program at Iowa State University, a school renowned for its concentration in Rhetoric and Professional Communication. I petitioned to join, and was accepted into, a Ph.D.-level workshop in cultural studies. My inclusion was ridiculous considering it was the first grad class I attended, and, still on my parents' health insurance plan, I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with students approaching age 30 -- some were even in their 40s and had kids. But the course partially inducted me into a world where philosophy met communications, where ideas and politics were at least as important -- perhaps more important -- than the written word. This was the type of course that Mr. McGurn would really hate, as Marxist thinkers such as Stuart Hall and Terry Eagleton predominated, but I used my 25-page capstone assignment as an opportunity to defend freedom of speech. In the process, I successfully managed several delicate challenges: writing a more complex manuscript than I ever had before; defending free speech when my case study involved expression I considered abhorrent; being intellectually sophisticated enough to impress my older and more educated classmates; and sincerely engaging with new concepts in a way that would not bely my non-Marxist leanings.
Granted this was two decades ago, but "critical thinking" was a preeminent part of my English (with a concentration in writing) education. (Having an affinity for Early Modern England, I even made sure that one of my two required literature courses included a heavy dose of Shakespeare.) Humanities majors prepared me to enter the world of business and flourish in jobs in public relations, grant-writing, advertising and marketing. Who else is going to write a business proposal if not a writer? Care to give up your weekend? I never had to.
I pray that colleges and universities are still fulfilling their bargain and preparing their students to be thinkers and writers. But if parents keep steering their kids into STEM fields because they are focused on the ROI of college, then English, history and philosophy departments will necessarily be merged and, potentially, folded. Then who will do our thinking for us?
And we wonder why democracy is in decline.