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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Elitism Of The English (Major)

Sara Newman |
March 31, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. PDT

Senior News Editor

English degrees demand a sense of relative economic security. (Sara Newman, Neon Tommy)
English degrees demand a sense of relative economic security. (Sara Newman, Neon Tommy)
“So, have you figured out yet how you’re going to make money?” begins every other conversation with my father.

Other days he takes a slightly different approach, instead asking whether I’ve “thought anymore about becoming a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or an engineer.” He doesn’t say it, but the unspoken words hang in the air—“or anything else that promises you a successful future.”

In recent years politicians, professors and concerned parents have been speaking up about the importance—or lack thereof—in continuing to foster the humanities in college. These debates tend to center around whether pursuing degrees in English, Philosophy and similarly lofty subjects, or attending liberal arts-centric colleges are worthwhile investments in one’s future. In his New Yorker article, “Why Teach English?” Adam Gopnik defends the importance of the humanities as a way to allow people to bask in the pleasures of reading.

“The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human,” concludes Gopnik. “That’s enough.” Where he ends his case, however, I begin mine.

With a 9.8 percent unemployment rate for recently graduated English majors and an average annual income of $32,000 for the lucky ones who do manage to find jobs, English degrees demand a sense of relative economic security. For those with some economic wiggle room and the luxury of accepting less than stellar employment prospects, an English degree might be fine; but for students who had to make tremendous personal and family sacrifices in order to simply get to college, such a degree would be deemed frivolous, and simply be out of the question. 

Who can justify actively choosing to pursue a major with such grim economic promise, knowing that come graduation, a colossus of student debt and a table full of hungry mouths await? Even for those who seek the job security of teaching have to deal with the consequences of acquiring up to a decade’s worth of student debt in the process of pursuing a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and in some cases a PhD. When economic security is a survival necessity, the “ivory tower of academia” may appear as restrictive as politics—open only to those born into positions of relative privilege.  

SEE ALSO: English-Speaking Only Students Have 'Dreams' Too

A few years of intensive study are not enough to make up for the way that certain children are brought up to be readers, while others have to discover a passion for books on their own. Parents from higher-income households often have more time to emphasize reading and buy their kids enough books until they can find the ones that make them love reading; but children whose parents work multiple jobs simply to put food on the table often lack the time, the resources and the energy to help their children become avid readers.

Developing a passion for reading is not something that happens overnight—it takes trips to the libraries and bookstores for the child to choose his or her next paper adventure; it takes other readers to encourage and inspire a love of literacy; and it takes a comfortability with language that not all children are brought up to have.

Books are not merely binded reams of paper, not even piled up sheets of paper with words scrawled across their creamy surfaces. Books are time capsules to life decades or even centuries past, brimming with stories of people’s lives that readers don’t have time enough to experience themselves to instill readers with the gift of empathy. A 2013 study by social psychologist Emanuele Castano and PhD candidate David Kidd provides scientific evidence that reading literary fiction leads people to try to imagine the characters’ thought processes, thereby amplifying the compassion and understanding that the readers feel not only for the characters in novels, but for people in real-life encounters as well.

SEE ALSO: How LAUSD Can Improve Teaching Of English Learners 

While reading should never be looked upon solely as a means to an end, its ability to allow readers to imagine and try to understand the plights of people in entirely different circumstances is invaluable. It is so much harder to thoughtlessly throw bombs at someone whose plight you understand than it is to bomb a land inhabited by people who you view as “the other.” In trying to quantify the benefits of an education, we overlook the basic human need for the humanities—a need not limited to people majoring in English and other liberal arts fields.

Adjusting general education programs at universities just might be the way to truly “democratize the practice of reading.” (Sara Newman, Neon Tommy)
Adjusting general education programs at universities just might be the way to truly “democratize the practice of reading.” (Sara Newman, Neon Tommy)

Just as people should not always have to surrender their dreams to the bleakness of reality, so too should people be spared the loss of reading and the escapism that it allows. “Readers” are not merely English majors, but anyone who wants to learn more about other people, other experiences and other ways of living. This curiosity and pursuit of knowledge is inestimably valuable for people of all vocations. 

This freedom of the imagination, of the heart and of the mind is such a fundamental human joy that children grow up with, firmly entrenched in their education for the first 18 years of their lives. Taking it away comes across as a punishment for attempting to be logical and pragmatic, a punishment that is entirely unnecessary.

Reading and writing are emphasized throughout K-12 schooling because these skills are both important for a majority of careers and because they are aspects of education that can make kids excited to learn—so long as they pick the right text. Yet, the current education model at most universities makes it so that for many students with more trade or skill-centric majors, a handful of general education classes may be their very last chance to read and discuss literature in an academic forum.

SEE ALSO: College Majors Should Reflect One's True Passion

So how do we address the economic, class and major-related obstacles that make the humanities inaccessible to so many college students? The key lies in creating more flexibility for college students—of all disciplines—to take classes outside of their majors. The liberal arts should become an integrated part of all college courses of study because they form the foundation of human interactions and at their core, of life itself.

For engineers, having a better understanding of their clients based on having read or otherwise learned how to best suit their clients needs is invaluable; for accountants, having a place to turn their brains when numbers cease to capture their imaginations can help prevent disillusionment and boredom; for anyone who interacts with people on a daily basis, having a better understanding of how people think and feel and go through life is priceless. Adjusting the format and course load of general education programs at universities just might be the way to truly “democratize the practice of reading.”

To think of reading as a worship of books is to degrade the study of literature; and to limit the study of literature to those who are able and willing to dedicate their entire lives to it, is to degrade the very humanity that unites all people. Redesigning the general education program that most universities offer to include a foundation in the humanities even for those who choose to major in more technical—dare I say, practical—fields, will benefit people and society as a whole. People should not be forced to choose between passion and security, or between compassion and intelligence; by truly “democratizing” the humanities, we can allow people to more than just the freedom of choice, but the freedom not to have to choose.


Reach Senior News Editor Sara Newman here



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