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English

Why English?

Dr. Mary Beth Long

Really, I think I chose to major in English because I am a fundamentally lazy and short-sighted person.  I do not mean to imply that other people who choose this major are lazy or short-sighted, or that a major should be chosen based on one’s character flaws.  What I mean is this:  in college, whenever I mentioned my major to other smart people, they would usually say something like, “I love to read, and I thought about majoring in English.  But then I figured I would never get another chance to learn X [chemistry or psychology or any other discipline], and I could always read good books on my own.”  Well, as a lazy person, I thought this reasoning amounted to a lot of bunk.  Who reads Shakespeare, for example, if they don’t have to?   Maybe chemists and psychologists and musicians do.  But I certainly wouldn’t.  And I knew even then that there is quite a lot to be gained by reading books, especially hard books.  Majoring in English gave me an excuse to dive into these sorts of books:  I had to.  It was my homework.  Never mind that I was finally getting to read authors I’d heard of all my life, that while my classmates were doing “real” work, I was reading Woolf, Chaucer, Austen, Milton, Wharton, C.S. Lewis, even Tolstoy.  Majoring in English seemed the most efficient way to becoming truly educated in the way the outside world expected a college graduate to be.

It was also the most fun way.  I love to read, and I wouldn’t recommend an English major for anyone who doesn’t.  I chose an English major in part because I do not like to delay gratification.  Why choose a major I didn’t really love because of the promise of a “good job” in four years?  Majoring in English meant I didn’t procrastinate doing my homework.  I liked my homework:  it often involved reading stories, some of which have never left me.

What delights me about this discipline even now is that reading a magazine like The New Yorker can, on some level, be considered “work.”  Keeping abreast of the bestseller list can help me with my work.  Spending time in foreign countries?  Yes, it’s important to my work!   And I do get to—have to—read authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare and Woolf every semester, learning a lot about humanity and myself each time I do.

It’s true that the flexibility of the English major means that there’s no ready-made job waiting for you when you get out.  But it also means that the things you love to do anyway, the things you would do in your spare time, “count.”  And when it is time to choose a job, you will be spoiled rotten by this luxury, and you are much more likely to demand meaning and fun in your work, much less likely to settle for a job that won’t deeply satisfy you.