In Defense of…English Majors
Written by Bwog Staff
Welcome 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.