I’ve been defending my English major ever since I came to UR.
It started during freshman orientation week, when I lived on a hall that included two — count ’em: one, two — people who weren’t studying one science or another. My hallmates, even the ones who would eventually become my closest friends, instantly regarded me as some kind of perverse alien life form. On some level, this was because they couldn’t seem to comprehend that anyone would continue to do those awful “reading” and “writing” things from high school willingly, let alone for fun. But to them, majoring in English was worse than strange — it was also useless.
I was reminded over and over again of how useless my eventual English degree would be. Oh, and I was reminded in the most hilarious ways. “The easiest way to get an English major off your porch is to pay him for this pizza!” My friends repeated this joke in my presence maybe a few dozen times — I think it was a coping mechanism for them, so they wouldn’t have a mental breakdown before whichever exam they had that week.
I’ve been hearing variations of those taunts ever since. I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise, as English has always been one of the most stigmatized undergraduate majors. I mean, our school actually holds a seminar called “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” which seems to confirm that stigma to the rest of the UR community.
Now, there’s a number of familiar defenses I could fall back on here. I could mention that the same people on my freshman hall who belittled what I do were all but lining up at my door when it came time to pass WRT 105. I could lecture everyone about the universal importance of being able to express yourself well through writing. Or I could just cycle the argument back and say, hey, at least I’m not a philosophy major.
But let’s all take a deep breath here. First things first: Let us all acknowledge that, while it’s easy to get a little too caught up in the thing you’ve chosen to study for four years and, while people in different areas of study might not appear to do the same strenuous work that you do, each major has its own difficulties and requires a particular set of acquired skills for success. We can all agree on that, right? Fantastic. Well, now it’s time to grapple with a harsher reality about the neverending debate over the use value of certain majors: They’re all useless.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not knocking the college experience, or reinforcing the oft-heard complaints about how it’s all a waste of money. I mean that when students act like the world abides by some kind of universal hierarchy of majors — in other words, when they reduce the college experience into an academic dick-measuring contest — they seem willfully ignorant about how the post-college world actually works. Simply put: Every major is useless by itself. It’s what you do to actually legitimize your major that makes it useful.
In the big, scary post-college world, there’s a lot of reminders that the thing we study as undergrads doesn’t actually determine our futures. For one thing, there’s graduate school — which exists solely because, in so many instances, a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough to get a career. Also, think about the adults in your life — parents, relatives, even some professors. How many of them ended up working in something that directly related to their bachelor’s degree? And then, of course, there are job interviews, which will never, ever completely revolve around what you studied in college.
What people really look for — whether they’re employers or even peers — are the things that actually prove where your passions are. Roger Ebert gave what might be the best career advice I’ve ever read: “Find out all you can and see what you can do with it.” That’s what college should truly represent — not an obsessive, single-minded career track, but a chance to entertain intellectual passions, curiosities and possibilities. We can hardly predict how these things will actually be “useful” later on. But let’s not worry about that so much — now’s the time to explore, and for those that do so, the rest will take care of itself.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.