Next month, I will be graduating with a degree in one of the most laughed-at subjects among my peers and the mainstream media: English.
We've all heard it before -- the classic, "What are you going to do with that degree?" The National Endowment for the Humanities has beaten that horse to death, so let me spare you from yet another blog about the many careers English majors have gone into. What we need to talk about is the disparaging comments English majors make about themselves.
I'm hardly guilt-free. I've cracked a joke or two about becoming a barista before. Other times, I've heard friends of mine in the humanities complain they will be "living in boxes" unless they marry rich after graduation (yes, I've heard that before). I don't think any of us actually believed in what we were saying; it was just convenient to throw in a tired joke we'd once heard on Girls or Portlandia when we weren't sure where we were headed off to. The truth is, I don't know a single English major from Cornell who calls home a cardboard box or works full-time at Starbucks.
What people who study language in college should realize is that words are seldom innocuous. If English majors are thriving in fields as varied as medicine to business to publishing, it is ridiculous to conclude that companies don't care about English majors. The truth is uglier: many self-deprecating English majors don't care about their major. Under each joke lies the belief that, as an English major, you have acquired nothing useful to offer society beyond knowing the proper use of a semicolon and assuming the role of caricatures perpetuated on television.
Let me tell you what I've learned from my major. I can whip up a news article in the time it might take you to write a shoddy outline. I can clean up a draft that should have been trashed and polish it up for publication. I can read complex articles without having to Merriam Webster every other sentence because, let's face it, nothing seems impossible to read after you've read enough William Blake or Shakespeare.
The sad thing is that a few semesters ago, I didn't really see how any of that was "useful." "Editing" seemed about as useless a skill as I could list on my resume today as "Microsoft Word" (who doesn't assume you know how to use Word nowadays?). Even though professors assured us we were acquiring "critical thinking" skills, I felt that it didn't matter because it wasn't PHP, C++ or some other frightening-sounding programming language. Employers weren't sending me company hoodies or socks (yes, I once saw a CS friend receive fuzzy socks in a care package from his employer). Where was the love?
I had fallen victim to a falsehood -- the conclusion that economic demand for a particular profession equates to its unquestioned superiority over another field. Of course the market is saturated with aspiring writers and editors every year. That doesn't mean the English major is useless, or that it can't be applied to a role that isn't Hannah Horvath in Ray's coffee shop. If half the English majors who thought their degree had nothing to offer them had believed they weren't automatically unqualified to take a stab at marketing or consulting or accounting during college, perhaps there wouldn't be as many unemployed English majors out there.
Yes, this is a degree that requires a certain amount of self-introspection. And no, you probably won't get fuzzy socks in the mail anytime soon. But don't devalue your degree because it's the butt of everyone else's jokes. It's your job -- not an employer's -- to sell yourself.