The English Major

No matter how one might feel about the utility of the English major, it remains to this day the ninth most popular major among the 50 majors recognized by the Department of Education.

What accounts for its popularity might be difficult to determine because the major itself can differ widely school to school, or even within the same school. In an English department in a New Jersey university, which was in the process of overhauling its English curriculum, some professors advocated for a strong basic core of subject matter (across books, poems, genres of literature, and language skills), while others rejected any notion of a central approach that might imply some sort of ‘new orthodoxy.’ This rejection of standards within the English department has raised concerns about whether an English major might graduate without having read one word of Shakespeare, or knowing the difference between the active and passive voice.

Consequently, certain oversight organizations sprouted up, such as ISI founded by William F. Buckley Jr., to review whether a campus had a central core curriculum, and whether key departments, the English department in particular, maintain the quality of its courses and overall learning experience. 

In other words students seeking a BA in English best do some research. Programs, indeed, vary widely.

Johns Hopkins, better known for its pre-medical studies, has very specific goals for its English majors. It wants its graduates to obtain a ‘core proficiency’ by gaining familiarity with a broad range of authors and works across a range of genres and historical periods, to express themselves ‘with fluency and precision,’ to understand the fundamentals of formal literary criticism, and to know a foreign language well enough to make comparative literary appraisals.

UC Berkeley’s department of English places emphasis on a core of six courses covering Shakespeare and an intensive survey of English literature from Chaucer to the 20th century, supplying a solid foundation from which to delve into further courses in literature, language, and writing. There is no escaping Berkeley without having had a solid acquaintance with the Bard.   

All this is well and fine, but for most the real question is what in the world can one do with a major in English?

Peter Beidler, a professor of English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania back in 2002, asked himself this very question and decided to send questionnaires to all 477 who had graduated from his department between 1980 and 2000.  Almost half the students responded.

  • 6% obtained MA in English
  • 3% obtained PhDs in English
  • 10% had gone into teaching
  • 18% obtained JDs
  • >45% were in business

Responding to questions about the benefits of majoring in English, the top two were improved writing skills, improved critical thinking skills, dropping dramatically down with literary appreciation and analysis, personal growth, and understanding human nature.

Professor Beidler added in his 2003 ADE Bulletin article, “Students who major in English feel put down for selecting an impractical, pie-in-the-sky, artsy-fartsy major.” However, when asked whether majoring in English helped them get their current jobs, 75% responded yes. Furthermore, when asked has having majored in English helped them in their current job, 97.5% responded positively.

If doubts still linger as to the validity of a major in English, consider a list of some who have majored in English and their outcomes. Mitt Romney majored in English at BYU and went on to get his MBA and JD at Harvard. Stephen Spielberg dropped out of his English BA program at CSULB. Then there is Harold Varmus who earned his English BA from Amherst in the 1960s and went on to get his medical degree from Columbia and a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

There are no rules or guarantees based upon a diploma. While a degree in English does not sport a label that renders it a practical path to success or acclaim, it does seem to teach its recipients about people, life, and the workings of the world. Few degrees might prove to be so valuable.