Reading the day away in a library or coffee shop; knowing Shakespeare like the back of your hand, attending poetry readings and discussions on intellectual topics: these are some of the stereotypes of English majors perpetuated to soon-to-be high school graduates entering college. Probably the question that most people think of when they hear someone’s majoring in English is, “What are you going to do with that? Teach?” Actually, an English major can do far more than that.
The Great Recession of 2008 caused a ripple effect in the rates at which college students major in humanities subjects versus STEM degrees. The prospect of easy and immediate employability outweighed the critical skills received through the humanities. Even though it has been over a decade since the recession, humanities majors are still low. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that the number of English majors are down by 25.5% since 2008 even though college enrollment has increased. It is easy to determine why. STEM is seen by parents and students as an easy road to a steady, well-paying job. But is it the right choice?
As an English major myself, I am a little biased on the subject. Even after receiving minor scrutiny from family about my job prospects, I continued with my degree plan. Now, as a graduating senior entering the job market in the midst of another recession, I am even more content with my decision.
In 2018, The Boston Globe emphasized the rising demand for more English majors, “People still need to study literature, philosophy, religion, and history, and there’s no shortage of think pieces coming out of the business world suggesting that ‘humanities and business go hand in hand.’” Liberal arts degrees like English teach students how to think critically, communicate effectively and research widely, allowing them the flexibility of a wide range of job prospects, instead of the narrow selection offered to STEM majors.
In a small survey completed by English majors about the expectations and realities of an English degree, a few similarities shown through, primarily the stereotype that English isn’t useful. Said English Literature student Rebecca Kelley of the most difficult aspect of the English degree: “A major factor that may be difficult for some people is constantly looking through various lenses and changing how you view yourself, subject matter and society. Every English class I’ve taken has made me rethink my place and perspective of the world. It can be a lot if you aren’t used to that kind of flexibility.”
The Quad’s Editor in Chief, Brendan Lordan, addressed those who call English impractical: “I think the stereotypical English major is a comrade in impracticality with the stereotypical Philosophy and Psychology major. English sits at a vague intersection between a trade and an academic field and I think people assume the less impressive traits of both sides. ‘How can something you’ve been doing since first grade be a career?’ is a question that can be answered in so many different ways that I think many people outside the field find it simpler to resolve it by saying that English must be useless or impractical, rather than address its nuance.”
What do English majors wish they knew before coming to West Chester? Largely the flexibility of the program: “I wish someone had told me how many options I had in terms of subject matter. Every semester I stumble upon literature I have never heard of in classes with a variety of focuses. Coming into the major, I thought I’d have to focus on novels or plays from American and British history, but there are so many more options I could have opened up to had I believed they fit into what an English major should study,” Kelley added.
But an English degree is not for the faint of heart. For new students only interested in an easy ride through college, English probably is not the best fit. “I think it is a lot of hard work and you have to be prepared to read things you don’t care about, write things you have no interest in and do lots of research on topics you may not want to — but in the end, I have been able to see myself growing as an English student and have enjoyed so many of the things I have been able to do within the English program,” said English Writings student Ali Kochik.
While English majors do have a mountain of reading and writing work, the degree itself is tailored to allow flexibility in college and the job market. The English degree should not be written off so quickly — the skills learned and applied make English graduates very marketable to a range of employers and fields. An added bonus: these students join the ranks of famous English majors like Bob Woodward, Stephen King, Emma Watson and Vin Diesel. So what can you do with an English degree? Anything.
Maria Marabito is a fourth-year English writings major with a minor in literature and diverse cultures. MM883631@wcupa.edu