What We Stay Alive For: In Defense of the English Major


I was an English major.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved books. From Angelina Ballerina to Nancy Drew, my childhood was filled with page after page of adventures that I eagerly took part in. As I got older, I discovered that I loved writing, too. From entries in my elementary school journals to notebooks filled with the poetry of my high school years, writing became an activity I adored rather than a school assignment I dreaded. Each reading assignment, each research paper was met with an enthusiasm that I didn’t have for any other subject in school.

So I chose the only path that made sense to me, the only path that felt right. I became an English major. Sure, I also added a major in Communication Studies, but that was simply another outlet for my love of writing. In my heart, I was always first and foremost an English major.

I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to be surrounded for four years by the words that I loved so deeply and the tools to help me understand and appreciate those words to the best of my ability. So I became an English major.

I was impractical. Being an English major wouldn’t make me rich or famous. I wasn’t training to be a stereotypically “valuable” member of the working world.

But I was happy.

It took a while, but eventually I got used to the snide remarks and eye rolls when I talked about my major to others. I learned not to be offended by the way people derisively talked about those of us who chose to spend our college career “reading books all day” (insert passive-aggressive sigh here). I even discovered that it didn’t bother me when people thought I had an “easy major,” because I knew the truth; there’s nothing easy about reading the complete works of Jane Austen in a semester or writing 30 pages of literary analysis in three days for various course finals.

I wasn’t pre-law. I wasn’t pre-med. I wasn’t studying economics, education, or engineering. Those are all important majors to be sure, and they deserve the respect they are given. But those of us who choose to “read books all day” deserve some respect, too.

After all, English majors do learn incredibly valuable skills—skills that are often overlooked by others until it comes time to apply and interview for jobs. We learn how to write about any topic you could imagine—and to do it well. We learn how to argue a point (even one we don’t necessarily agree with) by citing our sources, backing up our thesis with facts, and using compelling language to change the minds and hearts of others. We learn how to mine every nugget of information possible from the words we read. And we learn how to think deeply and critically about the world around us.

Being an English major is about more than just developing the kinds of skills you can put on a résumé, though. It’s about the lessons you learn from the words and stories that you immerse yourself in. You discover that there’s no one way to interpret a book; nothing is black and white. With each book, each lecture, and each discussion, you open your mind a little bit more to new worlds and new ways of seeing the world you inhabit.

As an English major, I spent four years studying the stories of others, and I consider that a truly important kind of education. It might not have made me a traditionally “useful” member of society, but it made me a valuable member of the human race.

The world needs doctors, lawyers, and engineers. But it needs English majors, too. Words have the potential to save and change lives, to shape and affect the world. Words matter, and, therefore, those who study words matter.

Of course, practicality is important in the real world, but so is passion. My passion is for words and stories, but I know amazing people with passions for science, math, and many other areas of study. I’m proud to say I followed my passion, and I admire those who have followed and continue to follow theirs in any capacity.

I was an English major. Words were—and still are—my life.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way.


11 thoughts on “What We Stay Alive For: In Defense of the English Major

  1. I think it is so important that you followed your passions. That is what the world needs more than anything, people who are passionate for something and who are willing to follow their dreams. We need more Leslie Knopes in all areas of life. It’s the people who genuinely care about what they do and allow themselves to be inspired by the things they love that in turn, inspire everyone around them to be their best.

    I’m not a fan of the idea that only some majors are worthy and valuable. All of them teach something that are useful and worth celebrating. The ability to think critically and express your thoughts well is so important and those are skills you develop in English classes and other classes in the humanities/social science areas.

    I really enjoyed what you said about being able to learn lessons from the books we read and the new worlds we encounter. One of my favorite classes (a sociology class) really emphasized us exploring who we were and how we felt about various topics. Teaching students the value of introspection and learning, as you said, that “nothing is black and white” are important messages and shouldn’t be overlooked.

    • I totally agree that the world needs more Leslie Knopes. I hope that people can see me as one. I truly believe that having passion for what you study and what you do makes you more productive because you’re happier.

      I love classes that help you to open your mind and see the world (and yourself) in a different, more open way. That’s why I love classes in the humanities/social sciences so much. There’s something to be said about using college to grow as a person in ways beyond learning facts and figures, and I think classes in those areas really help you grow as a person.

  2. As a fellow English degree holder I second your view of our value. Only a handful of the people I know who got “real” degrees are able to critically evaluate anything. In a society that values science as the absolute truth it’s amazing how few can really critique an idea or thoughtfully examine why the hold a certain belief. It’s what has created the deeply divided arguments that pass for dialogue between people in our society. Fortunately my English degree taught me much needed critical-thinking skills.

    • Thank you so much for commenting! I was just saying the exact same thing earlier today about the lack of critical thinking skills contributing to the increase in division among factions in our society. It bothers me that people seem less and less able to analyze their own arguments and keep their minds open to the arguments of others. I know that being an English major definitely helped me build the critical-thinking skills that have made me a more open-minded person.

  3. I don’t have much to add, other than to say that I agree with you wholeheartedly. Words matter. Stories matter. They teach us how to find and be ourselves, how to see other people’s points of view, how we can be wrong and right at the same time, and so many other things. They help us see what our society values, and help us to discover what we value most in our lives. They make us not just better at reading and writing, but better as human beings who care about each other and who care about the world around them. And that is why I am also an English major – because words can make a difference.

    • “They help us see what our society values, and help us to discover what we value most in our lives.”

      This is exactly what I wrote my thesis about. Words help us discover our history in ways beyond what we learn in high school social studies classes. They help us learn what people felt about the world around them throughout history, and words help us see that those same feelings are universal and timeless. They shrink the world while expanding our horizons. They help us see we’re not alone. I’m so happy that you know EXACTLY what I mean. ❤

  4. I’ve been meaning to respond to this post for several days now but life has been crazy. I definitely agree with what you’ve said here. Especially the critical thinking part. I was just discussing this with a friend the other day. We were lamenting the state of public education, and I brought up that they don’t teach critical thinking in schools anymore. It’s not enough to just be told facts, statistics, and theories. Children need to be taught how to think critically. How to evaluate evidence, or test a hypothesis, and how to consider all sides of a problem. English, reading, and writing classes traditionally used to hone these skills. Unfortunately the current age of “teaching to the test”, where teachers are so concerned about improving test scores that they basically throw out everything that can’t be demonstrated in a multiple choice question exam, has been extremely detrimental to the teaching of these skills. That’s why we have so many people who just listen to whatever talking head (whether it be on the news, in their church, or someone in their family) tells them is true and they just accept it as fact.

    Speaking of words and English, I’m taking an online modern poetry course right now. It’s pretty awesome. It’s taught by an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera. Modern poetry was the one class I was never able to fit into my schedule while I was getting my degree, so I’m pretty psyched to be able to get into it now. Once an English major, always an English major. 😉

    • I completely agree with what you said about the flaws in the current way we educate kids. I hate the idea of “teaching to the test” with such a passion – I can barely even articulate it. We’re already in a bad place as a nation in terms of just believing what we’re told and not analyzing what’s actually being said, and it’s just going to keep getting worse.

      That online poetry class sounds awesome! One of the things I love most about being an English major after graduating from college is the fact that every time you pick up a book or watch a TV show or experience anything that requires analysis and critical thought, you feel like you’re still learning. The opportunity to continue to develop your skills as an English major extends far beyond college classrooms. I feel like I’m continuing my education with every book I read, every thing I analyze, and every discussion I have. Like you said, once an English major, always an English major. 😉

  5. Observations from a fellow English major who COMPLETELY 100% IDENTIFIES with everything in this post:
    1) I never got any eye rolls and snide remarks (except now, from my brother, who’s an Engineering major. When he got home for Christmas break, I told him that I’d interviewed for an internship just a few days earlier. His response: “Mmm, did McDonald’s ask the tough questions?” Funny, little brother, funny). Maybe my roommates just recognized that I was the only one who routinely stayed up all night to do my work, so they knew better than to mess with me. Or maybe they all also had liberal arts-type majors. But in any case, I’m sorry you had to face that.
    2) I’m still unemployed, and I don’t even hold it against my major. I hold it against the world.
    3) Why don’t people see the difference between plurals and possessives? THERE IS NO APOSTROPHE IN A PLURAL WORD. WAKE UP, AMERICA.
    4) There’s a quote by Howard Thurman that I love beyond all loving, and it perfectly sums up why we should follow our passions. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

    • This comment is just another reason that I’m so happy I got to know you this year. 😀

      “3) Why don’t people see the difference between plurals and possessives? THERE IS NO APOSTROPHE IN A PLURAL WORD. WAKE UP, AMERICA.”

      OH MY GOD YES. The confusing of plurals and possessives is one of my biggest grammar pet peeves (along with the use of the wrong “to” and “there”).

      Also, I am going to use that Howard Thurman quote forever. It’s a perfect way to phrase what has always been one of my most basic beliefs: Passion is the most important thing a person can have.

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