English Majors (Redux)

I wrote this post fourteen months ago.  As we start a new semester at Mankato I think it’s worth throwing out there again. Biggest thing I’d add: actually loving stories is a prerequisite for success. English isn’t a good throw away major at all.  It takes love and work!

(TEXT FROM NOV. 2010) Tonight, I’m giving a little address to the new members of Minnesota State’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English Honor Society.  It’s caused me to pause for a moment and consider the value of studying English.  Back when I was in school, the degree, if I remember correctly, did serve as sort of a catch for kids who weren’t sure what to do with themselves.  Early on, I attended giant Shakespeare lectures half full of dudes in backwards baseball caps who breathed alcohol poisoning.  To their credit, they did attend class.  We English people were always a little bashful about claiming the major.  Why?  The responses we’d get from peers, parents, distant cousins… “Oh, yeah, that’s marketable… what are you going to do, write books? Hahahahaha… Smoke some opium?”  Hm.  I guess so.

Former English major sits in coffee shop during work week writing books, mother effers.

But, in thinking about the bee hive of lit and philosophy majors I knew and loved back in college, I have been seriously struck not by how much they’ve struggled with their “unmarketable” degrees, but rather how they’ve seriously succeeded in a thousand different ways.  Among my English pals there are not only writers and professors and editors, but lawyers, politicians, corporate managers, school principals and the like.  I don’t know a single lit major who has been put out of work by the bad economy.  From this crew (all in or approaching our forties), I don’t know a single one who works at a video store and spends free time smoking weed in his or her mother’s basement.  Even if they’re working in a field far away from writing or literary analysis, they tend to have full lives that include an appreciation for the arts, that include lots of travel, that include tons of smart friends, that include a commitment to loving and raising great kids.  We learn from analyzing stories.  These pals of mine, most of whom were angsty hipsters with marginal attitudes back in college, live lives that to me define what a good life should look like.

What is it about studying lit that contributes to the lives of good people?  What do we learn to do?

First, we learn to deal with complexity: Literature presents us with multivariate worlds where human psychology comes into contact with history, economics, geography, technology, etc.  Causal relationships are often subtle.  Absurdity often reigns, where there is no causality, at least at the individual level — large scale forces impact lives for no seeming reason.  We get good at deciphering intention and meaning in wild circumstances (reality is wild, by the way).

Second, because we read about the psychology of human suffering from many perspectives, we learn to feel empathy for people who are not even remotely like us.  Do I cry for young, rich-boy, tennis playing, Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest?  Yes, I do.  Do I cry for old, smelly, delusional Leo Gursky in The History of Love?  Uh huh.  Do I fear for powerful but vulnerable little Lyra in The Golden Compass?  Enough to make me almost sick.  The English majors I know have read a thousand lives, both the domestically real and the fantastical, and they are prone to understanding rather than deriding other people.

Third, novels are long.  There are few constructed to be read and understood non-sequentially.  To understand, we have to stick with them from start to finish, often over days or weeks.  This trains us to concentrate.  Feeling anxious from the constant surf between CNN, ESPN, Facebook, Huffington Post, New York Times, gmail, The damned Rumpus, The Local Paper, etc.?  Get into a novel an hour or two each night.  You’ll find yourself thinking straighter.  We lit majors are trained to pay attention over long periods.

Four, we’re open to being moved by deep beauty.  Yes, I am a jack ass.  I am easy.  I can see a nice little story in a Thomas Kinkade Mall Hall cottage painting, little lights in snowy windows.  But what really kills me is Leopold Bloom at the end of the dark night coming home to that cheating Molly and having her say yes a thousand times.  Real lives are filled with contradiction and sadness and also lovely moments that are not disconnected from contradiction and sadness.  We learn to see those moments again and again.  And, we become open to them in our own lives.  We experience that connectedness with our friends, our parents, our children.  This is rich stuff.

And, five, we learn to interact with multivariable texts by analysis and communication.  We make arguments based on complex evidence.  Mathematics is abstract.  It provides a way of simplifying the complex world.  It is one way to analyze.  The kinds of math most people need in the real world is pretty simple (not scientists or engineers, of course — but business people, lawyers, leaders of organizations who have number crunchers to provide that limited means of analysis).  In real life, the kinds of decisions we have to make and the kinds of communicating we have to do after making decisions is dependent on subtler understandings of human psychology and how it interacts with history, economics, geography, technology, etc.  We English majors practice doing this kind of analysis and communication for years.  Think of all human behavior as a text.  We can deal with it.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means.

So, I look across the wide swath of pals I had back in the day.  I see their ability to function in dozens of different domestic and occupational configurations.  And, I think, yeah, I write books, I profess my love for the written arts, but we English majors are set-up to do a helluva lot more.  I am seriously looking forward to talking about our powers with Sigma Tau Delta tonight.


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I am…

Geoff Herbach. I am the author of Stupid Fast and Nothing Special, among a bunch of other stuff. When I'm not writing, I teach writing at Minnesota State, Mankato.

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