B.A. in English: Useless or Stepping Stone?

by Megan Zappe

When I was a freshman at Mansfield University way back in 2008, I had come to the realization that my declared English major would not take me very far. At the persistence of my parents and peers, I changed my major to psychology, hoping for a career in school counseling or substance abuse counseling. After switching my major a total of five times and transferring schools once, I came to realize that being an English major was not so bad after all. I mean, if I’m going to spend thousands of dollars on my education, it might as well be doing something I love to do, right?

In The Use and Abuse of Literature, Marjorie Garber explores the reason for a decline in students graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in English: “the old truism – that a degree in English made you seem literature and well grounded in general education – was gradually replaced by a new truism, that the English major was useless” (121). As I read this I realized that my parent’s warnings were reverberating off the fleshy membranes of my skull … “You’ll never get a job after college with an English degree” … “What do you even want to do with that?” … With a quick shiver, I continued to read on and found that there was a fine line drawn between loving literature and wasting time analyzing literature.

The reason why I chose my major in English, once and for all defying my parents’ wishes, was for the exact same reason Garber gives for why literature study and love of literature go hand in hand. “[L]oving literature is, after all, what literary study is all about” (123). This holds true on so many levels. I love to read, most English majors would attest to that statement. But there is something much more meaningful about connecting with the reading – finding allusions to something else you’ve read, understanding symbolism, or picking apart a character’s intentions solely from his/her dialogue – it all revolves around a love for reading. Reading was held an aesthetic value for so many people years ago, but it cannot be denied that there was a certain connection, regardless if this can be truly defined as literary criticism. Going beyond the simple “I liked this book,” and “That book was dumb,” judgment, an average reader can pick out simple, yet important motifs and foreshadowing in just about any book.

The argument that the English major has become a useless study, a waste of four years, a money-pit leading to years of unemployment, does not depend on the major alone. The economy and the generally negative attitude toward literary studies is what fuels this. As for me, I will agree with Garber and say that yes, I LOVE reading and writing for pleasure, but I also LOVE analyzing a text and finding different meanings hidden between each word. I’ll take my English degree and happily job search for years knowing that I spent five years and sixty thousand dollars doing what I love.

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