Why is the “Ideal English Major” uncurious and anti-intellectual?

Why choose to be an English major? Why choose to study language and literature? According to University of Virginia Professor of English Mark Edmundson, one big reason is to be able to find new ways to say you are better than everyone else. Edmundson’s essay boils my blood, because his disdain for other people like politicians, economists and athletes, sadly typical in the academy, spills over into disdain for their knowledge. While seeming to celebrate literature and becoming an English major, Edmundson shows that his elitism is stronger than his love of knowledge. This is a sad revelation for someone purportedly in favor of a broad liberal arts education. It is also horribly counterproductive for our profession and the institutions that support it. 

Edmundson’s essay is apparently adapted from his forthcoming book “Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education.” Here are some choice quotes:

Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.

 

But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on.

 

The economics major lives in facts and graphs and diagrams and projections. Fair enough.

Defense of the life of the mind by policing the boundaries of real knowledge is bound to fail. Extolling the benefits of college by insulting other domains of knowledge will only create more hateful Forbes columns. This is not the rhetorical flourish that vanquishes the Helens Dragas of the world. This way just leads to more bitter columns by bitter academics. As it should. If we are in the business of sharing the wonder of knowledge, then we need to drop the vague mysticism of “there are readers and there are readers.” Take a small drop of that celebrated imagination supposedly thought to dwell deep in the heart of every English major, and think about why economists might think their field is important.  Economics majors do not “live in facts and graphs and diagrams” any more than an English major lives in the alphabet. Economics is the study of human decisions. Someone who studies health economics or the effects of poverty or labor markets doesn’t do it because they enjoy the pretty colors that excel offers. They like finding patterns in human behavior. Sometimes they apply that knowledge so that more English majors can eat.  They are not doing this because they are soulless automatons. 

The irony (am I using that word correctly? just a half-souled history of science major here) of Edmundson’s exclusive view of the ideal English major is that he closes with an expansive definition of higher education, then restricts it to the English major:

We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.

Inquiry! Absolutely. This is a wonderful and worthy goal of higher education. The center of higher education is a process of inquiry, But no single domain of knowledge has a monopoly on inquiry. The biology major who spends hours in the lab will learn the value of scientific inquiry. But they will also learn ethics and empathy.  The political science major will learn about voting patterns, legislative logrolling, and empty rhetoric, but will find their own passion underneath the strategy, will find inspiration in stories in revolutions. Does only the English major get to read Lincoln’s second inaugural? Can’t historians and political scientists find something deep in those words?

In short, there is joy, wonder, passion, frailty, good and evil in literature to be sure. But there is humanity in every other major too. Knowledge in all its many forms is wonderful. The poem, the atom and the dinosaur can all lead us to deep questions about ourselves and our place in the world. Wouldn’t that be a more fitting message for someone defending a Real Education?

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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63 Responses to Why is the “Ideal English Major” uncurious and anti-intellectual?

  1. Tom Lambert says:

    That (being the original essay) is funny. Especially this “Darwin on nature, or Words­worth? Freud on love, or Percy Bysshe Shelley? Blake on sex, or Arthur Schopenhauer?” I guess he didn’t notice that a) two of those people would not, properly speaking, be within the purview of an English major, given that they didn’t actually write in English and b) 3 out of the six are also not typical within the purview of English lit being scientists (2) or a philosopher (1). But hey, I guess when you’re so busy learning to be human, you don’t have time for details like that.

    • dailypaisley says:

      Actually, within the English Lit curriculum, philosophy is studied in the all-important Critical Theory course. I take your larger point, but I just wanted to add that side bar.

  2. I distinctly remember in college pretty much everybody arguing, at some point, that their major was actually the best major because…something. The fact is that for any field of study you can come up with points that are sufficiently vague and platitudinous to make it sound like that field is exceptionally deep or fundamental or rigorous or whatever. And since you’re immersing yourself in it, justifying that dedication of resources becomes salient. I think it happens in the non-academic professional world, too, and for similar reasons.

    Also, it’s trolling for hits and links. Like 10-most-overrated-albums-of-all-time lists. Everybody likes arguing about them in part because they’re so incendiary and arbitrary.

    Except Lou Reed’s Transformer. That’s objectively overrated.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Yes. Agreed to all of this. Except the Transformer bit, which I haven’t listened to.
      Which makes it all the more disappointing coming from someone who makes his living thinking deep, sophisticated, nuanced thoughts about the academy. You’d hope to get better than what you would get from an eighteen year old who just picked a major.

  3. segmation says:

    Many great people have graduated with an English Degree. One is Steven Spielberg–filmmaker! Cheers to that!

  4. Oh the irony of someone extolling the virtues of being an English major starting an article with a clunky phrase like “money-ensuring.” Nice to see all that reading expanding the vocabulary there. I agree with your points, and what’s more, I’m really frustrated that what *could* have been a great opportunity to extol the virtues of studying English has been wasted. It reads more like an “I’m desperately trying to hit back at all those guys who make the burger-flipping humanity student jokes.”

  5. That’s not like any English professor or English major I know, and I’m speaking as an English major!

  6. As a classically trained pianist and composer, I would really love to read ONE professional classical musician say something like this about all the sunshine-pumping nonsense that that crowd churns out like clockwork. How music is the only thing that matters, how it’s surely the most difficult and demanding thing in the whole, wide universe to do with your life (brain surgeons and EMTs? Pikers!), How they were consecrated to it at birth unlike all those other lesser things the peons do with their lives, even how some of them know this because they actually tried some of those other less worthy disciplines for a brief time and so they really know how soulless and empty they are!

    Insiders idiots are the worst, no matter what it is they do for a living. I also have a MS degree in physics, and you haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard those windbags get up their own asses on how much smaller everyone else’s lives are compared to theirs.

    At least physics has the excuse of not really existing to communicate with the outside world unless they need to ask for grant money. Literature and music have at their foundations the desire to communicate to the world. And evidently an awful lot of people in that world want to communicate nothing so much as, “See how much better I am than you?”

    • melayne says:

      Here, here! Oh your reply made me truly laugh. I loved it because I have seen it. I majored in Meteorology and boy, I know the “windbag up the ass” deal quite well. Well spoken sir!

    • Oh, man, 113yearslater, I hooted with laughter at that first paragraph. My first few years of English majory was what you have inspired me to call the Age of Disillusionment. So many voyeuristic creative writing instructors perched like vultures over students’ work, eager to disembowel their first attempts. So many published authors teaching lit classes with–surprise, surprise!–their own books conspicuous on the syllabus. So many inflated egos waddling around the university quad, just sniffing the air for uncertainty attached to talent–perfect target practice for the disgruntled tenured professor who never sold a screenplay.

      I came in looking up to these people as mentors and ended up only really mastering the art of extracting what they wanted to hear from their own physical and verbal cues. I should have garnered an honorary psychology degree by proxy. My real teachers were everybody I met in life after that.

      The real fun begins for the writer/artist/musician when you learn that you don’t need permission. You can jump right in anywhere and start being awesome. The only real opinion is yours, and if you have enough belief in your stuff, you’ll give off a kind of light that others will pick up on.

      • There’s so much less excuse for it in the humanities, too. The physicists aren’t claiming that their discipline gives them incisive awareness of their fellow human beings. They just claim insight into how electrons behave, not migrant workers.

        For the humanities folks to claim special enlightenment about the human condition (which, one might presume would bring some form of compassion and respect for others), and then turn around and finish it up with, “Not like the rest of you losers,” just stretches irony to the breaking point.

        And listening to the music geeks follow that up with, “And why are ticket sales falling?” doesn’t just stretch irony so much as blow it into its constituent atoms. Look at those worthless peons over there! Why don’t they like me?

      • As an English major, I know I am a literary snob. As a human being, I have benefited by learning to write well, and read eclectically, and understand what I read in almost any field. But as far as how it has helped my career – not really. The longer anyone stays in academia the less and less pragmatic they become,and then they would write the article such as the one we are discussing here. However, no one has ever hired me yet because I am an English major.

  7. amberirish says:

    I agree, even as an English major, that it’s preposterous to pretend like a degree in literature has more practical applications than a business or economics degree. I’m not saying that any field of study is more important or better than another, but in today’s world there are definitely studies that allow for greater, more practical application in the workforce and that’s the way it is.

    What I really gathered from Edmundson’s article was that what separates a reader from an “English Major” is a deeper understanding? A more complex insight? A piece of paper that proves you’ve just spent $40K (or more!) and four years reading books when you could’ve just read books anyway?

    I enjoyed my schooling and my classes – they helped me to sharpen my analysis and widen my scope. But so did turning 21. So did turning 25. So did losing a best friend. So did being depressed. So what if I hadn’t gone to school? I would’ve still read Milton, hated Woolf, and exposed a shameful love of science fiction novels. But would that have made me less of an “English Major”? Absolutely not, though I wouldn’t have the piece of paper and I’d be $40K richer. Do I have a job that in no way incorporates my field of study? You bet your ass I do. Do I regret my decision to study English? Yes and no. But do I cut down my fiancee’s choice to be a software engineer in order to feel better about my decision? No. Never. Absolutely not.

    To do that to someone else only points out my insecurity and doubt… And what’s the point in that?

    • katiebludworth says:

      I cannot believe how much I agree with you on every aspect of this. As someone who holds a degree in English Language and Literature (and with a fiancee who is a software engineer), I didn’t study what I did to be “better” than anyone else. i did it because it was something I enjoyed and that was about all the thought I put into it. If I had to do it all over again would I study something else? Maybe.

      But the fact is, people study what they study because it makes them happy. It represents who they are or who they want to be as a person. Accusing people of being who they are just so that they could be more pretentious? Not fair, in my opinion.

  8. Tim Shey says:

    I was an English major at Iowa State. I took a math class and had a great professor–he absolutely loved math; I came to the conclusion that math is a beautiful discipline. I also took a macro-economics class that I liked very much.

    What I am trying to say is that everything is interconnected. Truth and beauty is not just in poetry–it is also in other disciplines. We are not all supposed to be English majors.

    “The Computer, Iowa State University and Jane Smiley”

    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/the-computer-iowa-state-university-and-jane-smiley/

  9. melayne says:

    Agreed agreed! I love your post and love the replies. I saw the hypocrisy first hand in college (my college was rated one of the worst for professors in the COUNTRY). The elitism on a college campus is thick and horrific. I had this naive idea in high school of what college would be like. A group of smart, open minded individuals, civilly discussing a multitude of subjects. Instead it turns out it’s just one giant pissing contest.
    Granted it’s not all, of course. But the ones pissing are usually the ones who get noticed.
    Great blog. Thanks for this. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one who observed this.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks Melayne. Glad you enjoyed it. I can definitely see the temptation to be elitist. If one spends six to ten prime years of one’s 20s in lonely toil, one wants to feel better at something than friends who chose otherwise. But elitism to me seems so antithetical to the public mission of colleges to share knowledge. Sorry your college was full of that. I don’t find that a big problem at my current employer, Randolph-Macon College. Most professors I meet are very approachable, down-to-earth and respectful of each other’s disciplines.

      • melayne says:

        I’m glad to hear that. I’m throwing around the idea of a Master’s degree (haven’t decided quite yet). Now that I’ve been through the undergrad hullabaloo, finding good professors now ranks on the high list when checking out other colleges. It really wasn’t much of a thought when I entered higher education until the end, when I realized it could mean academic life or death.

  10. Michelle says:

    I’m studying English at U. Va. and have heard Edmundson speak a few times (though I’ve never had a class with him). I can say that the professors I’ve taken have for the most part been incredibly down to earth people who emphasize the way the wonder and open-mindedness literature inspires can (and SHOULD) be projected onto the world in general. What boggles my mind is the fact that Edmundson doesn’t acknowledge literature’s power to give readers insight into the very fields he disdains. Literature gives you a window into a new world – when you’re reading something compelling, you can briefly feel what it feels like to be scraping out a living in the Ozarks or trying to date in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in New York. It’s this very experience of peering into new worlds that helps me to see the quirky, exciting elements of fields that I know little about and have little interest in pursuing academically. I know that U.Va. has a reputation for being elitist, and this article does display that. However, U.Va.’s English department is also full of very helpful and deeply invested professors. I share your frustration, and I’m sorry that Edmundson’s article didn’t represent my experience with U.Va.’s English department.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for commenting, Michelle. Yes, I totally agree, being a UVa grad myself (as a graduate student). I had a few good friends in the English department when I was there, and my impression was that most professors at UVa were thoughtful, passionate, and deeply invested teachers, as you say. Thanks for coming by. Good luck in your studies (and enjoy Charlottesville!).

  11. Great read. Congrats on gettin’ pressed.
    Sorry for the bad English =-)

  12. Jean says:

    Did my undergraduate major in English lit. Then a master’s in library information science which is a social science because there is an aspect in the discipline, that quantifies information use, marries information literacy with demographics for planning and product /service design/delivery.

    I have never worked in a public library. Just large internal corporate libraries and information management depts. in law, engineering and government over the past 3 decades. During this time, is also moving rapidly from paper to electronic.

    Information intermediaries who must provide service well, also over time witness the great range and differences in the nature of information that different professionals from different contrasting disciplines must use for their jobs. It is a unique role outside of academic instructors, where one witnesses different thought processes, articulation of problems and solutions.

    It is never good to be overly defensive on the need for humanities, good writing, etc. An English major in a knowledge-based, highly computerized world in 21st century, may learn hopefully soon. they cannot afford not to have skills of logic, etc. if they want use any new technology or software deeply. They can’t afford to speak with critical analysis on society’s ills (and write about it), if they can’t interpret basic statistical graphs and data, etc.

    I would argue that the 21st century university graduate should be aiming for strong integrated and wholistic view of how their discipline fits into other seemingly non-related disciplines. There is a ton of disconnected information from “experts” and non-experts, exacerbated by hyperlinking, short tweets, etc., where more than ever we need to always fine tune critical analysis of what we hear and read.

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  14. If there’s one, there’s a good chance there are others so maybe I’m not alone in this but English literature felt like far more to me than just reading, writing, and the ability to analyze the crap out of someone’s point at a cocktail party. I went waaay deeper down the rabbit hole than that. And I’ve always wanted to write about this, so….

    I was/am in love with words. I actually designed fonts in the margins of my college notes with my black Bic medium point and fantasized about the beauty of certain shapes of letters and numbers. Serif, definitely, serif. (Rainman voice.) I noticed how the visual density and contours of certain words changed the shape of a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and wondered at the mountainous topography that jutted up from the longer ones. To this day, I can read street signs easily from incredible distances simply by applying this skill. Try it, it’s fun. People will think you’re the Six Million Dollar Man.

    And it wasn’t just the letters and their combinations, it was the white space around them. I studied how the brain reads not every word, but chunks, in fits and starts, and found out you can relax your eyes if you focus on the white margins above and below the lines of text while you’re still reading–often, you can even read faster! I found out I could read upside down text quite easily, could do word finds at an alarming pace the same way, and discovered my own ambidexterity and synesthesia: the number five is always yellow, the word Washington is always white and blue, the sound of a violin is a shiny graphite mark that moves along a plane, a dog’s bark is unpleasant, crumbly rock with sharp pieces that smells like vinegar and smoke. (Cat person.)

    The physical act of language is scintillating, too. The shapes of words doing complicated Olympic tumbling routines in my mouth as I rattle off difficult sentences can arouse. I rate a man’s voice and articulation far above his abs; epistolary romance is real for me. Email can turn into porn and the telephone…oh, baby…is it getting hot in here? The science of linguistics with all the inherent fun of phonetics and the keen awareness that attaches to your hearing after studying it is a fun way to go through life, like a strange musician. Accents become like delicious flavors to savor; the west coast of the United States is like a fancy ice cream store to a gourmet dialectologist. It’s become vitally important to me that I pronounce a person’s name correctly, no matter what country they are from, and I have great fun learning how to do it from them.

    Certain speakers, their tones and cadence, are rock stars to me: Richard Attenborough, Maya Angelou, Anthony Hopkins, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman. When Vin Diesel puts out a series of books on tape, I’ll have my credit card ready in a quick release hip holster. A particularly stimulating conversation with a skilled orator who is radiating passion about a topic I resonate with can make me dizzy and a little high. Foreign languages have real visceral impact–love Scottish, Russian, hate French. I took sign language in college just to feel what conversations are like without sound. Plus, it’s just freaking cool, like when a jazz singer tries sculpting and discovers he’s good at it.

    Okay, I just got a mental visual of what language feels like to me. I’m not a comic book fan but those scenes in the movies when a mutant hero draws energy from deep within his body, builds it into an unstoppable crescendo, and then explodes it out into the world in a concentrated, focused stream of power–THAT is what communication feels like to me. It is a culmination of spirit/power/energy/consciousness that is funneled through intent and desire towards a target audience. When the message is positive, it can heal wounds. When it is not, it can cause them. Conversation is a physical manifestation of consciousness. It’s like reading an x-ray of someone’s soul. What a rush.

    Tell me I’m not alone.

  15. elyssemh says:

    This reminds me of a joke argument my friends and I got into around freshman year of college about which major was the most important. We could all come up with a good argument, but in the end, we gave up. There is no one best major and it takes all types to run the world.

    Personally, I was an English (Creative Writing) major, but I don’t think that in any way makes me more of a human being or more able to understand human beings. Luckily, I was able to go to a school that emphasized a well-rounded education and taught that life was a “seamless garment,” not something to be segmented up and separated.

  16. Tosh. Elitist tosh.

    I was an English major at U of Toronto, with all the useless study of 19th century poetry and 16th century drama and reading Chaucer aloud in Middle English. I loved all of it — but NONE of it has done a damn thing for me in my successful 30+ year career as a journalist and non-fiction author. The only thing, and it was huge for me, was having a prof. in freshman year give me an insanely high grade (for an essay on Conrad) and tell the class I should, as I had said I wanted to, become a writer. That sort of encouragement was rare and lovely.

    One of my most indelible memories, though, was asking the dept. chair for academic credit for my journalism, as I was being published (and well paid) in national media by the end of my sophomore year.

    OMG — journalism versus Literature? How dare I actually use my analytical/writing/editing skills and earn a living from them? He reacted with horror, as though I’d spat on his shoes. “This is not a…vocational school,” he sniffed. He made that sound like a bordello.

    It made me never want to darken the halls of snotty/narrow/dismissive (oh, but so prestigious) academe ever again. Nor have I ever donated a penny to my alma mater.

    • There’s a tremendous amount of poisonous class warfare in his attitude as well. There are an awful lot of kids in college out there who don’t have the luxury of not using their skills to earn a living. When you need the money for more than saving up for the family ski trip to Switzerland that winter, you take those chances and you make the most of them. You can’t even consider taking unpaid internships that let you count angels on the head of a pin.

      So you end up with a lot of spoiled types who don’t need to work for money because they don’t need to earn any money at all … teaching classes on books like “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Great Gatsby” as if they have a prayer in hell of understanding poverty from the inside or the casual destructiveness of the rich from the outside. o_O

  17. sonatano1 says:

    It seems to me that, instead of defending the English major, Prof. Edmundson is being straight up defensive. To defend the value of the English major, he feels like he has to attack the value of other majors. This is completely stupid, of course, but maybe the guy is just getting desperate.

    As someone who’s done a tiny bit of work in academia, I’ve seen and heard some of the elitism you’re talking about. It’s easy to be an elitist when you’re working in a sort of “bubble” like that, and even more so when you’re a tenured professor, especially at a highly esteemed university like UVA.

  18. Don’t we read to understand the deep emotions and very human experiences of other people, and aren’t these literary characters sometimes business people and politicians? I think Edmundson’s article displays a very narrow world-view and gives me the impression that he doesn’t actually understand the work of people in other fields. It is surprising that someone who is a “better sort of human being” and has a clearer grasp on the human condition actually diminishes most people to being unidimensional. I would hope that even though I am an Economics major (at a liberal arts university), I am still eligible to be considered a multifaceted person. Perhaps my only saving grace is that I happen to be minoring in English… I suppose I don’t actually live in graphs and diagrams all the time. Great post!

  19. Practically speaking, there are many BA English Major graduates who are hired to help write tender documents for construction companies and grant applications for scientific institutions. The ability to communicate, debate effectively, argue persuasively AND have all of the technological expertise in one package is the magical alchemy of valuing everyone’s area of specialisation and working together…..(but I’m married to an engineer so I have to say that!!). Love the humanity of this post.

  20. When I applied to university for an English degree, my essay compared the knowledge I got from reading a book to the knowledge a scientist gained in looking through a microscope. More importantly, it compared the buzz I got from that knowledge to the buzz the scientist gets with a new discovery. Books are just my preferred form of LSD. They open my mind, and they make sense out of a fairly random and cruel world. But I would never be so arrogant as to say my way is or should be the only way to understand the world. It’s just the most rewarding way for me personally.

  21. “Anger and hatred is rooted in a lack of understanding,” or something to that affect. For anyone to judge a degree choice as less than his own on the merits of morality or nobility shows a great ignorance about reality. Sure an engineering degree, at the moment, is a better choice than some others if you’re going for money or getting a job using your field of study, but on the basis of some poetic ideal, praising one major over the other is a demonstration in prejudice, ignorance, and self-righteous worthlessness. In the end, surely the enlightenment of choosing a major comes from the understanding of one’s own humanity, as opposed to the humanity of the world?

    I’m an engineering student at Illinois. Top five engineering school, yet my fellow students seem confused at how double doors work. It’s an exercise in humility.

  22. The English major has become a bit fractured over the years. You can emphasize in creative writing, literature (which most relate to as the English MAJOR), rhetoric and composition, technical communication/writing, journalism, digital literacy, linguistics… and each emphasis argues that Literature studies, as a discipline today, is the least useful. Why? In my experience, as many other English majors argue, literature majors limit their studies to the cannon and hesitate or refuse to undertake contemporary studies in the literacy practices of today (or to relate their studies to contemporary topics/problems) They are great readers. They are awesome, informed, and critical readers. Many important theorists come out of literature studies, like Foucault, who has inspired generations of people who want to create social change, but in his greatest works, he analyzes documents, books, articles, and other texts that are not from the cannon. All majors have value, but it is what we do with our abilities gained from that discipline that is most important.

  23. anniceris says:

    Woah, that essay is completely gross. To come on all literary, the dude reminds me of Franny & Zooey’s Professor Tupper mussing his hair up before class.

  24. Yikes … I read this, and want to apologize on behalf of all English majors (yeah, I am one). Of course, I guess I can //kind of// understand this–so often, people think that an English degree is useless, or that the only thing you can do with one is teach. But this approach seems woefully childish–like a kindergartener shouting, “It’s not worthless! I’m better than you, that’s why!”

  25. ddeclaire says:

    Elitist is the only way to go. But you have to do it 100%. That solves everything because it’s a lot of work and you’re not distracted by your geographical location.

  26. The ideal English major being ‘uncurious and anti-intellectual’ holds true at my school. It’s exactly why I couldn’t stick with it. I took one English class that was essentially a “basics of writing” class. I’ve always been a writer, and I’d like to think I’ve always been okay at it. My first paper was even about something that inspired me, and I poured a lot of myself and my thought into it. I got a 0%. Why? I used the words “there are.” Once.

    I wanted to be a writing minor, that’s why I took the class, but if writing was about methodically avoiding some verbs and no amount of thought and excellent analysis could cancel out one “there are” which did not actually hurt the flow of the paper, then I will never be able to do it.

    • NOT AT ALL like my “English major” classes….my professors loved my interesting ideas and my writing style, especially my honors English profs. They assumed I already knew all the basics of writing or I wouldn’t be in an English Lit class.

      • I’m incredibly jealous. I’d like to say it was just the professor, but it seems like that class (which is the pre-requisite for all English major classes, aside from basic English which I tested out of) is designed that way by the English department. Every section and every professor has the same grading, same outlook. That’s not an English program, it’s a “let’s ruin you” program. One day I’d like to take a class that actually values independent thought in writing.

      • Try the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada!!

  27. taobabe says:

    I have an English degree. I studied English, not because I wanted to read but because I wanted to write, and I needed some well-honed tools to be able to write well enough to express myself. Did I need a four-year degree to become a writer? Not really, but it did make me a better writer because it exposed me to a wide variety of literary work that I might not have known about had I not been exposed to them.

    The book or novel or short story does not write itself though. That’s just pure hard work. There’s no getting around it.

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  29. Exactly. I was an English major, and know that it expanded the scope of my soul exponentially. However, the study of economics is, as you say, the study of human decisions. The study of Milton Freedman is necessarily the study of denial. The study of the Great Depression is the study of the human frailty of bankers. The study Adam Smith is the study of the expression of the individual. In fact, I remember a similar lecture given to me as an undergraduate, that nothing is more essential than the study of literature. However, one of the most important things that literature taught me is that arrogance is one of the greatest of all human failings.

  30. Andrea M. A. says:

    Edmundson’s ignorance puzzles all the more in an academic environment that has become increasingly interdisciplinary. I’m an English major with a minor degree in Cultural Studies; and my work relies hugely on sociology, history, PoliSci, and economics (especially economic theory), to only name a few.
    Squabbles among academics of different fields aren’t new — I’ve been told by BWL (economics at German universities) students that they’d love to hire me as a secretary more than once — but if the academics in question can’t get over themselves, the human condition is going to come back and bite us where it hurts; and then it won’t matter who can write the longer essays about it. I’m studying language because I’m good at it, not because I think everyone should be; and everyone who’s good at their stuff, whatever it is, deserves a fist bump.

  31. As an English major myself, I agree with your point. Academia has the bad habit of fitting every major into a little box, and acting as if all areas of knowledge weren’t actually intertwined. Someone who dismisses the beauty of understanding how the the universe works or the complexity of studying human behavior is shortsighted, to put it mildly.

  32. I do not necessarily think that having a major makes you better than somebody or another, but rather I personally think that each major has something unique to offer; it all depends on how your interests and how you interpret what you study. In particular, I am in the College of Humanities at my school because I liked exploring dimensions of race, class, gender, etcetera, while my friend is an Engineering major because she likes to explore how things are created and how she can apply that to her future. Your major is what you make of it, and nothing can make you better or worse than the next person.

  33. Kathy Coffee says:

    I double major in Economics and English and I love them both each with a different reason.

  34. I’m an English major. I read this and thought, I wish I could write more like this. Bravo! A great read!

  35. What really bugs me is that English teachers (and students) often comment on books without having studied the history of the author’s times, the economic, political, and social conditions under which he was writing, and (generally speaking) the subject he was writing about–and then take these very liberal economic and political stances without justification. You CAN’T really study English without studying all the rest.

    • I find your comment pretty offensive and wrong. I was an English major, and we generally always study some of the author’s history. There’s not time to analyze the entire mid-19th century before you tackle Great Expectations, but we would, for example, talk about workhouses and the prison colonies, about Dickens’ family history.

      But you should also be able to evaluate a book based on only it’s contents. Books have to live on past their own time, so they should stand on their own. And I noticed you assume only men write books.

      I don’t see what any of this has to do with liberal political stances that are so apparently offensive to you, but this isn’t really the forum for that discussion anyway. I don’t think its germane to the discussion.

      • Actually when I was in university there were two distinct and passionate viewpoints about viewing an author’s work – one, you look at it in the context of his life, his personality, his proclivities OR two, you let the work stand by itself. I thought it should be the former but many thought it should be the latter.

      • I’ve read about the different viewpoints you’re talking about, but I avoided all critical theory courses like the plague. Most of my courses were organized by time period, e.g. Victorian Literature, or English Literature pre-Norman Conquest. As such, there was a lot of historical context provided, but not much study about the author in particular. E.g. we talked about Keats’ family history with TB, but didn’t apply it to specific interpretations of his poetry. I agree, it is better to have background info about the period and a bit about the author.

        I see you also stick to male pronouns when describing authors. *sigh*

  36. Reno, that’s an interesting point you’ve raised. I guess that that’s where the distinction between historically aware readings of texts, as described above, and bibliographical criticism as you detail it kicks in. Looking at an author’s personal life and then finding parallels in their works (centuries later in some cases) is often discarded as cookie jar psychology by critics who favour a text-only approach. The human subject, fractured as it is, isn’t always a reliable measuring scale, but I agree with you that there are cases where bibliographical criticism can yield interesting and absolutely valid results.
    Researching historical and sociological conditions is a different kind of contextualisation, though; and is certainly advocated at universities, greatbooksdude. I mentioned earlier that English Lit has become increasingly interdisciplinary — this is the reason why. English majors are very aware of these things.

  37. Michael Smith says:

    Read Edmondson’s book, “Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference.” Edmondson was apparently headed for unfulfilling work in a factory or loading dock when he happened to take a high school class with an inspiring teacher, so he really believes everything he says about English and the humanities and learning how to live and be a person. I don’t know how that reflects on people like his parents or his classmates who didn’t encounter such an inspiring mentor, but he’s nothing if not sincere. Final irony though: it was a philosophy class, not English.

    His comments do seem a little dated, though. There was great enthusiasm in the middle of the last century for discovering and interpreting the canon. Today, even many English teachers are tired of it. And while learning to read is important many of the insights gleaned from great fiction, don’t belong to English or to literature any more than they belong to social science or psychology.

  38. “English Majors” are better described as “Students of academically approved writings in the English language.” Ask me, I am one! I was also on hand when one of my professors admitted that “about the only thing an English Degree is good for is teaching English!” Many of us become writers, some become good writers and a very few become great writers.
    I became a book salesman, and eventually an unorthodox middle school teacher who taught reading, writing, proper English and keyboarding at the same time.

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  40. Abe says:

    I think that Edmondson’s comments are both being misinterpreted (and perhaps also a bit misguided on their own account.) What he is saying about speaking one’s language, as opposed to allowing one’s language to speak oneself, is only true of a very small minority of people in the field of English studies, and what’s more, this problem is exacerbated by an academic culture that blindly parrots the same abstract nominalizations again and again without ever carefully considering the actual words being used, nor the manner of their use, nor the functions of particular combinations of words within a social context. Most people studying English today, in other word, are style-blind. They cannot (to use a cliche) see the forest of systematized language for the trees of its isolated elements.

    Mastering the English language requires attention to ALL facets of style: phonetics, diction, syntax, sentence-level patterns, paragraph-level patterns, discourse-level patterns, along with attention both to the substance (content, meaning, etc.) and context (rhetorical situation.) The reason why Edmondson’s words do not describe most English majors is not because study of English cannot lead a student to that more comprehensiveness awareness of language he is advocating, but rather because it usually doesn’t, the professors being too enamored of free-floating nonsense to get their students to buckle down and learn the substance.

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