A Reply to Mark Edmundson’s
“The Ideal English Major”

I came upon Edmundson’s article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Chronicle Review via a Facebook post. I thought to myself, Interesting! I’ll have to read it when I have a moment. And so I did. It has its logic and its truths, but in these times of “financial insecurity” I would disagree with Edmundson’s assessment that students “think seriously about majoring in English.”

When I entered college in 1995 I immediately declared myself an English major because it was just over a year earlier that I had discovered the power of literature and a deep vocation to become a writer, to which I will return shortly. And this is precisely why I disagree with Edmundson: English is not a major that you voluntarily choose.

Becoming an English major is not going to lead to a financially lucrative career, as he hints. So, unless you are ready to pen the Great American novel and several thereafter, pursuing a degree in English by itself and for itself will not grant you financial security in these fragile economic times or in the future. And unless you are set to pursue Education as a major alongside it (good teachers are always needed and absolutely integral to our experiences as students and as humans), or have a long-range plan where an English degree can serve as a stepping stone to a degree and career in Law, for instance, as a classmate of mine did, or are prepared to find a way into and stick it out in the constantly changing world of publishing dominated by self- and digital publishing, then English is not a viable option if you are looking for a cash cow.

Becoming an English major is, as Edmundson asserts, about pursuing “the most important subject of all—being a human being.” But it is also something that I believe, and this returns me to my own declaration of English as a major, is ingrained in you; you do not choose it of your own volition. If you plan on pursuing it without a double major or an advanced degree in another field, then it certainly is not something you voluntarily choose to put yourself in massive, drowning debt for. For me, it was a case of reading one very specific novel (Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) and realizing that literature does exactly what Edmundson says it does: it allows us to “see the world through the eyes of people who . . . are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than [we] are.” And in doing so, literature enables us to realize our own humanity, a humanity that is equal to, and so the same as, the humanity of all those who came before us, are living now, and will come after us.

In line with this is Edmundson’s other substantial truth concerning the life of an English major, that

He wants to use what he knows about language and what he’s learning from books as a way to confront the hardest of questions. He uses these things to try to figure out how to live. . . . For to the English major, the questions of life are never closed. There’s always another book to read; there’s always another perspective to add. . . . He measures them and sifts them and brings them to the court of his own experience.

I can stand behind this statement from firsthand experience. Ever since I fell in love with literature at seventeen and realized writing was the channel through which I would express my ideas and desires, and that literature is an entrance into an infinite number of worlds where I could meet literary characters and the authors who created them, and learn about the infinite nature of human experience from them, I have not been able to stop myself from the pursuit of knowledge, “the quest for truth,” and move through each day with an undying “love for language [and a] hunger for life” that knows no bounds and that literature alone has given me. The greatest gift that literature has given me is the gift of myself, of discovering my voice and my identity as a human being, a human being among and alongside other human beings, living and dead, and the ones waiting to be born.

So, if you are one of those students who has been struck by the divine flash of a verse, a poem, a line of prose, a character, or a whole novel, and looked up and realized this is who you are, then by all means pursue the dream of language and the infinite worlds that countless authors’ pens have brought to life between the covers of a book. But if your dreams and your heaven lie elsewhere, then follow that path. For if it is one thing that Edna in Chopin’s novel taught me almost twenty years ago, it is that you must defy the voices of conformity, all the naysayers who think they know what is best for you, and walk your distinct path to its end where your fate lies, not theirs, even if it doesn’t work out as you had hoped and planned.

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.