studying English

Alternate title: in defense of my “useless” degree. This post is actually in two parts and not funny or relatable or really anything like what I normally post on this blog (I’d like to say that means it isn’t boring and pretentious, but unfortunately that’s everything I write). A couple months ago, my mom sent me a link to the commencement address from the 2014 graduation ceremony of Sarah Lawrence College. The speech in question is on the subject of why a liberal arts education is worthwhile—as someone at a liberal arts college, I defend this a lot, and it’s always interesting to hear someone else’s thoughts on the subject. You can read the speech here, and I recommend that you do.

So that’s part one. Part two is that although I read the first half of that speech when my mom initially sent it to IMG_2543me, I finally got around to finishing it today. A lot of the points in the speech reminded me of the speech I wrote for my for Great Books class this past semester, which argued that studying literature is a) valuable and b) pretty important. You all know I’m an English major and that I want to be a literature professor, so making sure people continue to study literature is a big deal to me (and in my personal opinion, should be to everyone). I liked the way the speech turned out so I figured I’d post it here—even if it is a bit stuffy. (What can I say. Academic writing.) I hope that what I have to say makes you think, at the very least. I personally feel like education is about wisdom, not just the acquisition of technical skill. Ultimately that’s why I’m majoring in something most people view as useless; there’s more to my degree than just the job it spits me into at the end of four years.

One last thing—if any of you reading are in high school and trying to decide what to study or are interested in literature/the liberal arts/anything like that and want to know more about what it’s like majoring in English or have any questions, I’m more than happy to talk about it at greater length. Literature is my passion and I want to share that as much as I can. And with that, the speech:

[note: my classmates were the intended audience of this speech, hence it was written for people already in college who have also read Homer’s Iliad—if you are neither of these things, never fear, the arguments will still make sense]

What are you majoring in? Chances are when you chose your major, you thought of your future career and decided based on what would best prepare you for it. In my case, it was the other way around: I chose to study literature because I love it, and the career I intend to pursue was a secondary consideration. However, I’m often criticized for choosing to study something with so little payoff for the amount of money and work I put into it. My goal today is to show you that the study of literature is not only worthwhile, but practical. I’m not trying to convince you to change majors, but I hope to encourage you to take an English course or at least to read more and with greater intentionality. Good literature read well cultivates individuals who think deeply about the questions surrounding the human experience, which can have a broader effect on society; as you have the ability to take advantage of good literature, you also have the responsibility to do so.

First and foremost, people ought to study literature because we as individuals do not exist in a vacuum. We exist in communities, most immediately in the people who surround us, but on a broader scale as part of the worldwide human race, throughout the ages. Literature increases our understanding of these communities by asking who we are, where we came from, and why we do what we do. The study of literature is more than just analysis of themes and the study of syntax; it includes philosophy and history. Writers express their ideas and worldviews in their works and emphasize the issues and events that are significant to them. Through literature you see the intimate details personal experiences of history, while history textbooks merely give you an overarching picture of past events. In literature one sees a particular issue through multiple lenses. What were people thinking at the time? What ideas were they developing about humanity based on their experiences? How did their contemporaries respond? Literature is a conversation. Authors go back and forth over an issue or a philosophy, developing it through their writing. When you study literature, you don’t stand from a modern vantage point and look back, but walk alongside those who lived history, experiencing it as it develops.

Furthermore, literature reveals the unifying thread of humanity. A character who lives in a setting completely foreign to your own still has common experiences with you. Even if the character isn’t human, its author was, and therefore it reveals something fundamental about humanity. Take Achilles, for example; I assume none of you will ever suit up in Greek battle armor and wage war against Troy, nor will your mother be a nymph. However, all of you will experience loss. Achilles’ experiences resonate with our own and serve as an example that the human experience doesn’t really change. Our philosophies might develop and our societies become more advanced, but almost everyone is going to lose someone they love. There are fundamental truths about humanity that literature can reveal, stretching across time periods and settings, real and fictional; to study literature is really to study these truths. Common human experiences in literature also cultivate empathy in the reader. Good literature forces you to view a situation through someone else’s eyes, whether it’s a character radically different from yourself, or the author, as you try to determine what significance he intended his writing to have. Whether or not this grants you a new perspective on a subject, it still is an exercise in empathy, as you are forced outside of yourself to consider someone else’s thoughts.

The main argument against the study of literature is that it isn’t worthwhile because jobs in the field don’t earn much. Forbes magazine included English literature on its list of the 10 least valuable majors, based on high initial unemployment rates and low initial earnings. The case made is that even if literature makes you a better person, it doesn’t make you employable or wealthy, so it’s a waste. The problem with this worldview is that it measures worth in monetary terms. There are more valuable things than careers and salaries, and there are more skills needed in life than just those of your degree. The study of literature develops a skillset that allows you to live well. Critical thinking and analysis help you make better decisions, such as buying a house or choosing what to do after you graduate. They can also help you become a more informed and active citizen, as they make it easier to understand more complex situations both in your own life and on a national and global scale. Furthermore, increased empathy can make you a better friend, child, sibling, or parent. You’re used to putting yourself aside to consider the opinions of others and you know that even those who are radically different from you are still relatable in some way. All these things aside, studying literature doesn’t doom you to a life of unemployment either. Remember Forbes magazine? Included on their list of the top ten skills employers look for are the “ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization,” the “ability to plan, organize and prioritize work,” the “ability to obtain and process information,” and “the ability to create and/or edit written reports”. All of these are skills one acquires over the course of a literature degree, and merely being an active reader can boost these skills, which can advance you in whichever career you choose. Furthermore, a successful career is not measured entirely in monetary gain. Interpersonal relationships, vocational fulfillment and other factors can make one happy and successful in one’s career. A high salary does not necessarily imply happiness or success inside or outside the workplace.

The study of literature might not be your most lucrative pursuit, but it is an important pursuit regardless. Technology is constantly developing, and degrees in the sciences seem to be your best option, with a projected employment increase of seventeen percent from 2008 to 2018. But you ought to be frightened by the prospect of a technologically driven culture without the study of literature. We need to know where we’ve come from, we need to know what it means to be human, especially when those ideas are questioned and challenged. What is the unifying mark of humanity? How should we treat one another? Should we do something just because we can? What is true, what is right? These are questions we all need to be thinking about; even if you’re not an English major, you’re still a human being. In the end, the study of literature is fundamentally important because it perpetuates a culture of people who read and ask the important questions about the human experience, which is invaluable in society. The study of literature can make you more empathetic, analytical, thoughtful, and connected to your humanity; a community made up of students of literature can create a culture that also embraces these qualities.

What I’m asking you to do is read and read well. It’s worth it.


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