This past Thursday, Union students hosted more than 30 newly admitted Scholars of the Class of 2019. As one of the hosts, I was very excited to connect with my student, who was matched with me based on my major.
Being a double major in English and Chemistry, I’m often amused to see which student that Admissions chooses to pair me with; those more to the science side or those closer to the humanities.
This time, I was paired with a student interested in studying English and possibly neuroscience.
Though students interested in chemistry, engineering, economics, biology and biochemistry populated the list, my student was the only one forthrightly acknowledging an interest in English.
I quickly came to discover that my hostee and I were very different people.
But one thing we could agree on: our passion for the English language.
I couldn’t talk to her about music, about movies, or about fashion, but I could talk to her about the importance of writing and what it means to be a writer.
More than opinions about trivial contemporary tastes or issues, we connected on our common passion for the written word.
However, when I asked her if she still planned to major in English she seemed undecided.
She echoed many arguments I’d made myself — the unlikeliness of finding a job, the want for financial security and the death of the English major.
She seemed ok with stifling her love for writing until she made a living as a financial consultant or as a neurosurgeon, at which point she hoped to write a novel.
This is a problem.
Why are students gifted in the art of crafting language so often dissuaded from pursuing their dreams? What dissuades them?
One article dispelled the menacing air surrounding the English major for me when I was first entering college. Verlyn Klinkenborg, a New York Times editor emeritus and recent speaker at Union, wrote an article in 2013 entitled: “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.”
In this article, Klinkenborg emphasizes the pressures undergraduates feel “from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large—to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs.”
These pressures all too often discourage the blossoming writer and leave parents with one worrisome question: “What is an English major good for?”
What is an English major good for?
One of the problems with this question is the label “English major.” Too often in college and beyond are people labeled by the general formula “adjective + major.”
We’re much more than our majors than the designation on our degrees.
Being an “English major” generally speaks to possessing a specialized set of skills.
Most broadly, it encapsulates the ability to use the English language effectively and creatively, beyond the colloquialisms, idioms and bare necessities of everyday discourse.
I could ramble on about the benefits of studying a human quality—that of language—which separates humans from animals, but there’s another logical argument to be made.
What is the present state of the Coliseum?
The Coliseum is half-ruined, and continually undergoes preservation efforts to keep it standing and to maintain a safe space for tourists.
What is the present state of the Parthenon?
The Parthenon has undergone restoration efforts for many centuries, but still remains only partially erect. A good imagination is necessary to envision it in its original glory.
Examples of the ultimate achievements of mankind, the wonders of human creativity and agency, these physical monuments have fallen victim to time and weather. While they still radiate as symbols of ancient glory, there is another source of human pride, one which will never deteriorate.
Literature. Literature is timeless.
While the pages of Shakespearean drama may wither and fade; while the cowhides of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may shrivel up and disintegrate, the words of these writers will always hold meaning and will always have bearing on the collective human experience.
Representative of human genius in a immaterial way, these works stand as pillars and cathedrals in the literary world, to which the English student makes pilgrimages to, aspiring and praying to one day be as remembered as these famous writers.
The “English major” is the lathe by which new writers and turned and tuned, crafted and completed. They become the scribes of our generation, writing the annals of our section of human history.
But at Union, only three percent of degrees conferred in 2014 were to English majors.
This is not to say that other majors do not incorporate good writing skills.
But, if we focus on the major explicitly dedicated to perfecting the science of writing, we see a sharp decline in interest in the past 10 years.
If this trend continues, our generation might very well end up without finely tuned voices to tell its story.
While humankind will never stop speaking, never stop writing, it is essential that well-rounded, talented writers exist to further the greatest tradition of mankind: storytelling.