In Defense of…English Majors

Written by

englishWelcome to Bwog’s latest feature, “In Defense Of…” Here, a writer defends something that most students consider useless, inferior, or downright loathsome. In doing so, Bwog hopes to bring you a new perspective, and give the subject the appreciation it deserves…or not. For our first installment, we’ll stay close to home: Bwog daily editor Justin Vlasits defending English majors. 

English majors get a really bad rap.  Why study a language that you already know?  Do English majors self-select because they cannot succeed in the sciences, whether they are hard, soft or social?  Do they just read books for fun and only take the classes because it is something that they enjoy doing?

It’s true, English majors are a special breed, although not homogeneous by any means.  Among us, to name just a few, are the theorists who are keen to analyze the ideological spins on texts; the close-readers who pick sentences apart with only their personal copies of the OED; and the anthropological readers who seek to understand the culture through the texts that they read.  Common between all of them is that the critical, analytical gaze that they all take towards texts.  Yes, we are bibliophiles, but our love of books is not as simple entertainment.  

Reading as an English major is different from reading for any other kind of discipline because, whether you are reading papers in physics, psychology or philosophy, the goal of the author is to tell explain an idea so that others in their disciplines can understand them.  But in fiction, drama and poetry, the main divisions in literary studies, the author does not explicitly state their purpose.  Central to understanding English majors and literary criticism is this, the unpacking of metaphor, the analysis of structure and then the synthesis of themes within works and connections to other works.  Being critical in literature is not just making arguments once presented with facts, it is exploring a text as an organic whole and trying to find out just how it ticks. 

What is the ultimate goal, you might say, of this synthesis?  It doesn’t seem produce anything for anyone.  When speaking about the feminist critique of male-dominated lanuguage, late comedian George Carlin said, “We do think in language and so the quality of our thoughts and ideas could only be as good as the quality of our language.”  What literary criticism does is analyze our language and analyze our thoughts in ways that linguists and psychologists will never be able to do. 

The biggest problem with neuroscience today is that it can explain how so much happens in your brain and in your thoughts, but it cannot tell definitively tell you what your thoughts really mean.  Literary criticism tries to understand those thoughts.  What is memory to Cather?  What is the nature of cause and effect in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?  No matter how far the sciences ever progress, they cannot understand Ophelia’s mental breakdown or the thoughts of Julius Caesar when he sees Brutus stab him and merely utters “Et tu, Brute?” 

To be a successful English major is to ask those tough ontological questions, to try to answer them and get some kind of idea about people’s thoughts and emotions and about the nature of the world we live in.  Our questions are not a matter of entertainment, but in order to study English, one must love to read and love to think.  We don’t produce machines or marginal utility graphs, we digest words and come out with thoughts.  And I sincerely hope that it isn’t useless.

Tags: ,


  1. Only half  

    making fun of you,

    Are you saying that English scholars are kind of like a really big really interesting lit hum class forever? digesting words and coming up with thoughts?

  2. Anonymous

    I'm in grad school for English now and I appreciate the attempt. So let me help you by preempting the criticism.

    I don't think I can defend 50% of the space cadets who make up the major. But then again, I can say that for any major.

    Cruel to be kind!

  3. ...

    i say to each his own...

    But i really do hate literary snobs...... they are the worst breed of snob

  4. lol  

    so you guys... read for a living? And then occasionally write abstruse responses?

    You are a great help to...nobody.

  5. wrong  

    The examples Ophelia or Caesar are not hard to understand.

    Caesar is the easiest example to take. When you have one or two knife wounds in you and you don't have much time to live generally one's neurons fire up as a chemical is released (they found this chemical is only released in massive quantities at death hence all the sci-fi stories about near-death and out-of-body experiences where the body accidentally releases it).

    You run through your memories (which happen to be stored in the brain cells) asking how you got to this point remembering all your friends and foes. Surprise hits your brain as you see the face of your friend as he stabs you and for lack of control to make any exhaustive speech all you can think of is why this is the case as your left (or right, can't remember which) lobe can't comprehend the logic or reasoning behind it and needs more data.

    Your brain passes along the last easy thought it can get out to the mouth. Simple no?

    That's an overview of what happens but the point is everything is reducible to science. Even abstract notions of love (pheromones, evolutionary ratios which show that women with wider hips have an easier time giving birth, etc) can be reduced.

    English major - Epic Fail
    Science - Always wins

    • Ophelia  

      Ah, and you're the same kind of person who believes that all of falling in love is merely a chemical release in the brain--the same as eating chocolate!
      Memories are "stored in brain cells" and pheromones define all of sexual attraction?

      Sad life, buddy. You don't have to be a romantic (or an English major) to ascribe a little bit more than science to life.

      • i think  

        that sounds about right. oh, and brains beat computers so far because it's a massively parallel system; computers beat brains in individual "processors" being many many times faster. eventually, science will have massive parallelism, too.

        i love ray kurzweil.

    • DHI  

      Isn't that what ayahuasca does?

      All ya'll who studied in the Amazon can tell us about that.

    • XJE  

      #5, I'm usually of the same mind, and your analysis is more-or-less accurate, but you're committing the same sin that I see from many of my more quantitatively-minded peers in humanities classes.

      Yes, the scene is about death, and those processes would occur in a dying person's brain. But the scene isn't the same thing as the actual event of a man's death, it's a bunch of words, written by some guy, who intended to have them read by some actor, in the context of the words read and actions performed before and after, in front of a paying crowd of people who expressed a desire to be "entertained" and have tacitly offered to suspend some degree of disbelief while they watch this fake event.

      Where I'm going with this, I guess, is that literature is not documentary. I'm not sure how many real deaths Shakespeare saw, but I can't imagine that many people cry out "I am slain" at the instant before they die. So yes, the emotions we attribute to dying people have some physiological basis, but when your medium is the printed word, you can't simply direct the reader to "1. simulate Caesar's brain. 2. in the simulated model, apply these hormones. 3. note the simulated physiological response" [or at least, it would be weird to do so].

      To bring it back to science, words have frames, which is to say, they activate certain related memories and ideas, which is why "to intentionally end a life" does not create the same feelings in a reader as "to murder" or even "to kill" -- all those word-combinations activate slightly different memory pathways.

      The writer's task [mercilessly simplified] is, by including or omitting certain details, and by carefully choosing his words, to manipulate your mind in such a way as to make you perceive events that you have not actually seen, and to react to those events in the manner he prescribes.

  6. lol  

    I think the real criticism of English majors is that Science, Math, Econ & some Engineering majors could do what you do at a competitive level; you guys couldn't begin to understand our realm.

    • lol#2  

      Based on my CC section, I am disinclined to accept this claim at face value. Other experiences come to mind, but listening to many of the math/science/econ/engineering kids' comments on even the most accessible texts can be excruciating. Rather, I think it is easier to overestimate one's ability in English and the other humanities than it is in math/science/econ/engineering.

    • ...

      As an econ student, I think that's a bullshit generalization

      • sorry  

        scratch the Econ major. I wasn't sure about that one myself.

        • ...

          Jackass, I wasn't saying Econ is easy... I know plenty of folks who find it difficult...I was rejecting your implication that people in our majors could easily succeed as English majors...

          Either way, this is a stupid debate to engage with since everybody in this forum is just relieving midterm stress by trying to aggrandize themselves and what they're studying for at the moment...

          Dear English majors, you are not inherently happier than science people

          Dear non-English majors, real technical analysis of a text isn't that easy (and i say "real" since the shit we do in lit hum is BS)


          And Note, I preemptively concede that by attacking the crowd i'm trying to aggrandize myself

  7. not at all  

    tell one of those physics or science kids (who may be good at math) studying in butler to construct a coherent sentence about the economy.

    • Yes at all  

      they could get B's in your English classes. You would get an F in their science classes.

      • asdf  

        The extremely generous curve in many science classes would prevent this. For example, a D- on one of the midterms in my physics class last year became an A after the curve. Not to say that all science classes have a curve this generous, but you would really need to try to get an F, even with limited scientific ability, in many science classes.

      • Correction

        We get A's in your English classes. Compared to our science course, the work load for a typical 3000-4000 level English course is gravyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

        • sure

          but we can talk to girls.

          these are the trade-offs we make in life, friends.

          either way, i think the argument extends to what the students in each track can produce in their realm. science/math majors might be able to make the grade in our classes, but i'd rather be fucked in the ear than have to listen to a play written by them. case in point: richard mcbeef.

        • Really?  

          I don't see many science majors and engineers reading 400 page books every weekend and writing twenty page papers about them. What I do see them do is not doing any work until right before the test, freaking out and studying everything that's on the test in a day or two.

        • really?  

          And just how many 3000-4000 level English courses have you taken? I thought so.

          The fact is, everyone's upper level courses are hard, yet everyone seems to judge departments based on the intro classes...

          • DHI  

            He's probably taken a few:

            I can say that intro physics (2800) is significantly harder than any upper-level class in any subject I've taken (in history, english, polysci, philosophy, and math). I got a lot of respect for anyone who goes through with physics. But physics isn't the same as engineering, and I don't hear physics majors talking shit about other people as often, and some of them are really cool people.

            Richard Feynman was a physics genius who joined a tambourine band and wrote at least one really enjoyable, accessible book.

  8. woah woah woah  

    let's not start hating on the linguists please! we already hardly exist at this school :(

  9. I am from SEAS  

    hey look! a degree that means something: i did a lot of hard work and i will be rewarded with a steady job with good pay that gives back to society in a tangible, measurable way! wow, how novel.

    p.s. i got A's in all my literature classes, friends. and i am a published poet. suck on it.

  10. ummmmm

    watch Avenue Q. I guess I judge English majors a little, but not nearly as much I judge poli sci majors. There's something endearing/disgusting about those physics kids in butler, no?

  11. but even we think

    that "published poet" is just another word for "giant douche."

  12. HELLO  

    I am between the ages of 18-22 and I think I am the most important person in the world and everything that I do and deem important is better than anything you do!

  13. DHI  

    Granted, I got the feeling my math, english, and polysci upper-level classes were not the hard classes for those departments, but what I'm saying is that my impression is that physics is a genuinely hard subject at Columbia, that they have a legitimate claim to doing harder work, and that I still don't see physics majors talking shit on here so the rest of ya'll should shut up. (again, I am not a physics major)

  14. Dear Justin Vlastis:  

    If you're going to write a defense of English majors, engaging in some quick copy editing before posting would do wonders for your credibility. When you write things like "It doesn't seem produce anything for anyone" and "lanuguage," you just give fuel to the people-calling-all-English-majors-stupid-and-lazy fire.

  15. What most of you

    fail to realize here is that English majors enjoy their lives. Science majors curse themselves when they're up until 4:00 am studying for an exam, whereas English majors enjoy staying up that late, writing papers and discovering new things about the book they're writing about.

    At least I do...

  16. Et tu  


    The irony is stunning.

  17. Self-defeat

    I discount the validity of the English major on the sole grounds that defenses such as this need to be written. I have yet to see anyone actively defend their decision to become an electrical or biomedical or chemical engineer. Hell, even the IEORs have some purpose (admittedly, a purpose the rest of us have yet to identify). But the point is, majors like English, Econ, History, etc. don't produce people with unique marketable skills. That's why it's so hard for them to find a job afterward, and why they go nuts with all the career fairs. I hate to use myself as an example, because single examples aren't conclusive proof. But I'll use it as a demonstration anyway: I'm an engineering alum, from a sufficiently unique track of study. By graduation, I had two VERY desirable job offers without having done anything more than sending an email expressing interest. Meanwhile my econ, etc. major friends spent the last two years freaking out because they have absolutely on distinguishing characteristics.

  18. blah

    But which majors know that arguments like this one have been going on pointlessly for millennia, and can urge all sides to chill their respective shit?

    That's right. Classics. In your face. That'd be a good In Defense Of, too.

  19. Boring!

    Be more concise:

    Literature is dense.
    Understanding it can be hard.


  20. Sigh.  

    Nothing worse than major wanks.

  21. random  

    Girls don't talk to me - they talk to my money.

  22. :...  

    dear bwog,
    i think this piece was a success.
    more "in defense ofs" please!

  23. me again  

    also, given the recent, ahem, depression, i would love to see an "in defense of majoring in economics"
    thank ya thank ya

  24. ehh

    I sadly acknowledge that the current economic downturn will inevitably affect all of us in the long run. Still, I can't stop myself from laughing at econ/finance majors and especially MBAs each time a bank closes and the Dow loses another few hundred points.
    As we say in certain engineering circles, PWNAGE.

  25. GS owl

    Guaranteed - you will ALL hate your jobs when you get out of here. Period. None of this shite matters. It all comes down to fun in this life. I will attest, English majors have more sex (fun). It all comes down to sex. Pick what's easiest and go get laid.
    In 14 years you will bow to this Prophet, and I ain't kidding.

    • Yo,  

      GS owl, How on earth could you possibly know which majors get laid more often. First of all, if you were getting laid that often, you wouldn't be in GS.

      Second, are you suggesting that an English major gets laid more often than an I-banker/general finance major?

      And to #47, despite what happens in this economic downturn, there will still be more finance jobs available than engineering jobs. PWNAGE.

  26. 3-2  

    Don't know if you're aware of the 3-2 program. Kids in SEAS that completed another degree at another Liberal Arts college. We essentially complete the whole Core, plus major in something besides engineering. The purpose is to create well-rounded individuals. Which, I think, is what we should all strive for? Can we all just get along?

  27. Anonymous  

    I'm an English major and a Math concentrator. A big reason it's not the other way around is because it'd be much fucking harder. Everyone I know who likes both liberal arts and math/science subjects agrees that it's easier to get a good grade in the liberal arts ones. I don't think there is really much of an argument to be had here.

  28. BUT  

    It is apparently harder to get an A+ in the lib arts than in the sciences, according to the blue and white:


    How the heck does that work?

  29. ...

    And, BWOG, this was a success...

    May I suggesta couple ideas:
    - "In defense of Barnard"
    - "In defense of CCSC"
    - "In defense of Republicans"
    - "IN defense of Wein"

    Any other ideas about things that get a lot of hate on campus?

  30. GS owl

    "In Defense of GS". That'll get folks going...

  31. Campus Hate?  

    "In Defense of the Hunger Strike."

    Oh, wait.

  32. Fotog

    I wish I still had to defend my major- those were the days! In truth, it matters not what you study in college, but if you can convince someone that you know what you're talking about. Thank you English major.

  33. I dunno..  

    I don't think there is a defense of Lerner. Other than it having mailboxes.

  34. Ya know what  

    the science dudes and dudettes may be useful to society by helping us find ways to live longer, make better use of resources, etc...

    but without a life with literature, philosophy, music, and all that easy stuff to study it would be a dry and cold world.

    face it, ya'll make the ipods, we make the music (sort of an analogy...)

    i'm not an english major btw

    but in any case,
    science people and english and stuff people are more helpful, i'd say, than the econ/poli-sci students who only want law school/business/moneymaking.

    those only help themselves, and others if they get something back.

    Economists in general are quite useful though. And so are political theorists/scientists and some politicians.

    that's how life is i guess.

    • uhh  

      Who said philosophy was "easy stuff to study"? Just like it's mistaken for someone to think they have a good understanding of physics after reading A Brief History of Time, it is mistaken to think you understand philosophy after reading Camus and drunkenly discussing it with your John Jay floor-mates at 3 AM.

© 2006-2015 Blue and White Publishing Inc.