The Faceoff: Legitimacy of the English major questioned

"The only difference is that an anthropologist learns anthropology, a biochemist learns biology and chemistry, an economist learns economics and an English major learns … well that's the problem."

There are those majoring in the sciences like chemistry, biology, biochemistry and any other area of scientific inquiry, those majoring in the humanities like anthropology, arts students in their various shapes and forms, communication majors, mathematics majors and those who are undecided. Oh, and those who say they are English majors.

To be more accurate, however, I simply group those majoring in English along with the rest of those still trying to determine what they want to do with their lives. To put it bluntly, an English major is a glorified undecided student.

Let's take, for example, the desired outcomes of a biochemistry major such as myself versus an English major. An English major must be able to think critically and to analyze literature, poems and, in the end, reality. English majors need to be able to comprehend complex ideas from the works that they study and must be able to infer meaning from the information they are given. Most importantly, English majors must be able to competently express their ideas and communicate to others in the most effective way possible.

This sounds like a rather in-depth course, right? Not exactly. I, a biochemistry major, must be able to think critically and analyze the data and experiments with which I work. I need to comprehend the complex laws and ideas that govern how the world works on both the atomic scale and the grander scale that you and I occupy. I have to be equipped with the knowledge to synthesize the data and ideas I gather and infer how a given process works and what outcomes may occur. But just knowing how the world works is not enough. I too must be able to communicate my ideas effectively to the scientific community so that the world as a whole can make use of the information that I may discover.

In fact, the requirements for being an English major, in the general sense, are the same requirements for any other major. All people studying at this college are learning how to comprehend, apply and communicate the world around them. The only difference is that an anthropologist learns anthropology, a biochemist learns biology and chemistry, an economist learns economics and an English major learns … well that's the problem.

The content that an English major studies is merely the techniques and concepts of literature and to a lesser degree the ideas presented within literature. English majors learn that in many literary works there are many references to sexuality. They learn that Emily Dickinson may have been a lesbian. They learn that the higher the position, the harder the fall.

But what an English major doesn't learn is what everyone else does: marketable skills and knowledge. An economist can work for virtually any corporation. A biochemist can work at hospitals, agricultural or biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies, research institutions, the federal government and any number of universities. An English major can teach or work in the print industry, which is currently receiving its last rites. Although an English major has marketable skills to work at many places requiring skilled labor, in this economy only people who fit the job perfectly are going to get the gig.

So is it worth it to continue with the English major charade? Not at all. At this rate, English majors are paying about $20,000 to learn the same thing as everyone else with the exception of any real marketable skill. Let's just take the concept of majoring in English, roll the most important parts into the general education requirement as well as teach it in high school where it will really make a difference and give the English major back its real title: undecided.