Why I Love my Useless English Major

beachy head

Look! It’s me, wasting time and accruing debt at a beautiful beach in England. Can’t you tell how deeply unsatisfied I am with my life?

Once upon a time, in a youth Sunday School class, I learned that everyone needs a reasonable career goal in mind from a young age. By reasonable, of course, the teacher meant “money-making,” and I didn’t exactly like that idea. I didn’t want to be an actuary, or an accountant, or a business mogul. I told him I wanted to write. He looked at me funny and moved onto someone else who had a reasonable career goal. His loss, I thought.

Why bring this up?

Well, yesterday I had a rather troubling experience. Until now, I’d gotten away with completely avoiding university administration, to the point where I started wondering if I could have stayed here forever without anyone noticing me. It’s been pretty great, taking whatever English classes I want while subtly hiding under my “music pre-major” status.

But, as an incoming junior, I figured it was time to make things official. I did the responsible, grown-up thing and visited the humanities advisement center earlier this week to make an appointment with an adviser. I hate bureaucracy, but this is how universities are run these days. By advisers. In departments. Who need you to make appointments to see them, or else, you’ll go nowhere.

For some reason I imagined that a humanities adviser would be enthusiastic about the humanities. You know, fully invested in learning for the sake of learning. Because let’s get real – a philosophy degree isn’t going to get you a lucrative career. It was never meant to. And, frankly, why should it? But that’s not quite the attitude I encountered this afternoon.

Instead, I was condescendingly asked “What are you planning on doing with an English major?”

I said I’d like to go to grad school. Or teach middle or high school. I always give those answers, even though I’m not remotely sure if they’re true. The adviser’s response?

“Why don’t you major in English teaching? English majors go into all these other fields too! Like marketing! And law! Teaching is not the only option. Also, there are no professor jobs right now. And you need to learn how to apply your study abroad to a job interview. And remember that school isn’t just about having fun and learning. You’ll graduate someday, especially if you take a lot of classes, so get ready to start applying for jobs NOW. And graduate school shouldn’t be an excuse to hold off a career. And don’t waste your time on a PHD. Would you like an internship?”

Her enthusiasm for an education model I hate took me a bit off guard. Oh, I’d heard stories about these people. But to come face to face with one of them? Absolutely horrifying.

This adviser was under the ridiculous impression that I declared an English major because I thought it would make me lots of money. She knows there isn’t a job market for future-me and my lousy English degree, so she took it upon herself to explain that my future isn’t completely hopeless in spite of my poor, poor decision-making skills. Ugh.

Believe it or not, none of the great, established universities in existence 500 years ago were meant to prepare you for some vague notion of a rewarding, career-focused future. They existed to teach students things, wonderful things. Cambridge probably didn’t care if you had a five-year plan. Oxford didn’t have the goal of earning you a six-figure salary. They were institutions of learning, focused on interactions with mentors and peers, with the ultimate goal of acquiring knowledge.

Today, I’m apparently here, at an accredited university, to learn how to make money at a vanilla desk job, and I find that so absurdly boring.

It would be one thing if she truly cared about my future as an individual, but that’s certainly not the impression that I got. The university wants high job placement rates. Students like me are no help to this endeavor. So they try to brainwash us humanities and arts students. They tell us that we should only be here to train ourselves for a job, so they’ll look good when we find ourselves doing something we might not even like, right out of college.

Please don’t make me one of your statistics, humanities advisement center. I honestly don’t care what the school’s job placement rate is. At all. I go here to learn things, and I’ve deliberately chosen not to learn how to make money, because that isn’t something I am at all interested in. I realize I’ll have to deal with getting health insurance and some sort of salary someday, but not yet. Let me appreciate school for being school.

Stop trying to find me a career. I’m twenty years old, and I don’t want one yet. I can’t say that I ever will. I will not be a leech to society. I’ll get a job. I might work in a kitchen, call center, or department store for the rest of my life. Maybe I’ll become a published author. What’s it to you?

And what is it, exactly, that is wrong with the struggling recently-graduated English major stereotype? Do we collectively think that we’re all better than that? Because I don’t. Maybe I want to be huddled in the corner with my typewriter and a threadbare wool blanket, eating a cold can of baked beans with my rusty silver spoon as I ponder the universe. It builds character, after all.

Don’t make me feel inferior because my major doesn’t tie directly to a lucrative career. It certainly doesn’t bother me, so why should it bother you?

I am lucky. I have family and friends who understand and support my educational decisions, but not everyone has that benefit. There’s no way of knowing how many potential Miltons, Austens, or Tolkiens have gone the way of the law degree just to “do something useful” or “find a job that will buy you a large house.” If everyone throughout history felt the pressure to find a reasonable career and just stop there, we would be so horribly deprived of art, music, literature, and All That is Good. This world would be a horrifically boring place.

So I’ve decided that this is what I want to do with my English major: I want to go about my life an educated individual. I want to understand humanity better, more fully. I want to feel the human condition at the highest possible level, read and interpret what’s been written and studied and adored for decades, centuries, millennia. I want to be able to understand logic, form my own well-constructed arguments, write for the sake of writing and maybe for some money as well. Those things won’t magically direct me to an amazing job, and that’s okay. I surely won’t waste my valuable time at the university trying to pretend that they will.

I study English because I love it. I love studying the written word. I love writing the written word. I love England. I love all of these things enough to spend thousands of dollars to learn about them, without any reasonable expectation to make a decent career of it, and I think that’s fantastic. In fact, I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity.

I shouldn’t have to tell you why my English major will make me a better salesperson, accounts manager, or computer scientist. I can tell you how it will make me a better human being, and that is why I’m here. That is why I choose to learn.


One thought on “Why I Love my Useless English Major

  1. Right? Art major here, with tons of credits in Communications, Psychology, and Foreign Language because I thought they were interesting. I graduated 15 years ago, and in most circles I still dread telling people what my major was, even though internally I know I’d pick the same one again. And i was always asked if I was going to teach, and people still ask if I will when my kids are gone. I too believe in learning for learning’s sake, though that doesn’t seem to go over well in the practical, small-town community where we live now.


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