English: The Hot New Major?

My office bookshelf

A few of the books stacked on my office bookshelf.

When we shut our office doors in Bradley House last May and slipped quietly into our summers, my colleagues and I in the English Department didn’t feel like we were at the front of a trend. After all, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences had just released a report decrying the diminishing number of students studying in the traditional Liberal Arts disciplines (See The Heart of the Matter) a trend to which we have been bearing uneasy witness.

But then during the past few months several articles have appeared extolling the virtues of the English major, one even calling English majors the hot new hire. These articles make for some rather persuasive reading and certainly offer worthy ammunition for students who have to sit in the third degree chair at family gatherings and be asked by a skeptical relative: “English? What are you going to do with that?” Take time if you can to consider these answers to that question:

These articles describing the inherent virtues and diverse utility of the English major are not providing any new information to us here at Saint Anselm. We have known all this from regular conversations over the years with our graduates, men and women who are working in all kinds of jobs in nearly every professional field, growing, developing, leading and using the communication skills and empathetic knowledge gained from their major every day. We also know from these conversations that in addition to their professional work these graduates discover happiness in reading books, going to live performances and films, participating in and contributing to the cultural life of their communities and encouraging others to do so.

Still, for all the well-deserved recent accolades, English could never be the hot new thing. It’s just not our style. The enriching study of literature and language is more or less what it has always been, like the white Oxford shirt, the tweed jacket, the sensible shoes that take people to interesting places. English will never be the flavor of the month or some new fizzing energy boost in a can. It’s the same well-aged amber draught that has flowed from barrels in English pubs since Shakespeare drank there. English is sitting over there at the corner table as far from the loud music and flashing lights as possible, laughing with friends and enjoying long conversations. Making a living? Indeed, and also living a life!

So, as we lift our shutters and prepare to welcome our new and returning students this fall, we are flattered by the recent attention from business professionals and leaders. We are gratified that the tangible and intangible benefits of the English major are being recognized and rewarded. But having learned from Henry Thoreau to be wary of any enterprise that requires new clothing, we will stick to our modest ways and sensible style. Heck, why do you think they call it the Oxford shirt?