What Practical Good is an English Major?
You're about to tell your parents that you want to major in English. "What are you going to do with that degree?" They will ask. What will you say?
Your parents are worried. You're worried yourself. The common wisdom is to play it safe: you are much more likely to get a good job and keep it if you major in a technical or a professional field. Even better is to go on for an MBA, or a law or medical degree. To major in English, or in eny of the Humanities, is to doom yourself to a life of poverty. You may be equipped to go through life enjoying novels and poetry, you may have a rich interior life, but those benefits may not seem like much when you're waiting tables and checking out grocery shoppers while trying to pay off your heavy college debt.
It's certainly true that many employers seem to want college grads who already have the expertise the company uses. But more and more CEOs are coming round to a different view: they want students who have majored in the Liberal Arts, in the Humanities — in English. An article in the Yale Alumni Magazine for July/August 2005 by Warren Goldstein quoted quite a few successful businesspeople who were Liberal Arts majors themselves and prefer to hire them to work in their businesses. Donna Dubinsky, for example, the CEO of Numenta, and the business brains behind the PalmPilot and the Handspring Visor, told him, "I am not wild about business degrees for undergraduates; that's a vocational-school sort of thing. I would say, for an entry-level job, if I'm hiring people I would absolutely prefer a liberal arts degree to a business degree." Charles Ellis, who founded and ran the international business strategy consulting firm Greenwich Associates for thirty years, said, "For leaders and managers, an undergraduate degree in business is a genuine, serious mistake. What you're going to learn is an advanced version of bookkeeping; you never learn the most rigorous thinking taught in professional business schools. I don't know anybody who recommends undergraduate study in business, certainly not over liberal arts, and I include science." Even if you do go on for an MBA, in other words, majoring in business is a poor idea.
A little googling shows that in the eight years since that article a trend has developed. Bracken Darrell, CEO of Logitech, said this in June, 2013: “I look at where our business is going, I think, boy, you do need to have a good technical understanding somewhere in there, to be relevant. But you’re really differentiated if you understand humanities.” Even high-tech companies like his need “soft skills”: the capacity to think about new subjects, adapt to changing challenges, and deal with other human beings. He is hiring English majors. In a recent blog in the Huff Post, Steve Strauss, who runs a small business, writes, “I love English majors. I love how smart they are. I love their intellectual curiosity. And I love their bold choice for a major. Most of all, I love to hire them.” Several other business leaders are saying much the same thing.
More and more companies need people at many levels who know how to write clearly, succinctly, gracefully, interestingly; who can figure out a new situation; who can bring to bear all sorts of factors besides the “bottom line”; who have developed an expansive, intuitive multicultural perspective; and who do not shrink from using their imagination as well as their skills and training. In a global market with easy travel, people must work together who come from starkly different cultures, so more and more companies need people who are themselves cosmopolitan, curious, tolerant, open-minded. And more and more companies are acknowledging these needs. How widespread this trend is we do not know, and times are still hard despite an uptick in the employment figures. Some students have noticed that even lawyers and accountants are still unemployed in large numbers, and have said, “If I’m going to be just scraping by with jobs I don’t love, I might as well major in something I do love. At least I can enjoy thinking about Virginia Woolf while waiting on tables.” We admire this spirit.
Of course, if your folks aren’t impressed with this spirit, or with the new hiring trend we have described, you can always have a double major: English and pre-med, English and computer science, even English and business. More and more English majors at UNH are doubling up like this. We worry, though, that to take 10 courses in a field you don’t really love might stifle and depress you, might detract from your energy and enthusiasm for the English courses themselves, and might rule out taking a course or two in something different (say, art history, or Greek) just for the pleasure of it.
We might add that English majors do very well, on average, in the GREs, second only to philosophy majors and way ahead of business majors. There are reasons they do well, and employers are beginning to notice these reasons, these skills.
We’ve been talking mainly about jobs, but life isn’t all about jobs. It certainly isn’t all about money, though if you believe the ads that flood the media you would think it is. Above a certain decent minimum, a lot of research has shown, getting more money doesn’t make you happier. It doesn’t make you a better person. And it certainly doesn’t make you a better citizen. Our country and our world need smart well-rounded people who can see through the dogmas and rhetoric of the governments, parties, and corporations that dominate the air waves. They need people who like to read, write, and think. They need people like you, in other words — English majors, who know how to do things to make them better places, more just and humane places. Most people who put their talents to work in this way, bettering their communities and the larger world, find they lead happier and more fulfilling lives, no matter what the size of their paycheck.
– Professor Michael Ferber, with thanks to Professor Douglas Lanier