I wrote this post on a personal blog on December 23, 2015. I was a junior in college, studying English and Religious Studies at Texas State University. Since its original publication, I graduated from TXST with Highest Honors, in the top 5 percent of my class—not too bad for a dumb liberal arts student! I married an electrical engineer, who, even though most people find him far more intelligent and impressive than me, values my brain and talents more than almost anyone else does. Today, I'm a professional content writer, a teacher, and a soon to be homeschool curriculum writer. If you have supported me through my educational journey and pursuit of writing, even just by reading my infrequent Vocal posts, I sincerely thank you.
The doctor looked at my father and said, “it’s your job to make sure your daughter is doing something useful with her life. You shouldn’t let her make mistakes like this.” At first, I brushed it off, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. This isn’t the first time I had heard someone say something like that during a casual conversation about my life as a college student. In fact, quite recently, I was with a friend of mine and we discussed the wide range of insulting and ignorant comments that we receive from people. She has made the same “mistake” with her life as I have. Are you ready for it?
We’re English majors!
This doesn’t sound scandalous to you, does it? I don’t find it worthy of a sharp gasp either. However, the things people say to me, and to all of my friends who study English, have tempted me many times to be ashamed. Regardless of the intentions that some of these comments(or more accurately, the people who say them) have, they’re belittling, discouraging, and extremely revealing. Nearly every phrase we hear communicates the same sentiment: “I think that what you’re doing is useless.”
Now, I understand that people who say such things don’t use the word “useless” to mean what the dictionary says it means.
Useless: not serving any purpose; unavailing or futile.
They allow the word “useless” to summarize other feelings or ideas that they have. “You’ll never make enough money to live comfortably,” “you’d be better off doing something else with your life,” “your education isn’t as valuable as other people’s,” “the only thing you’ll ever be able to do is teach.” I understand some of these attitudes, but each one is vexing in its own way.
For the first time in my life, I have felt privileged to attend classes and study something, because I have found what I truly love to do. Every day, I get to see the world through a different lens. While scientists look at the world by itself, discussing and discovering formulas and patterns, we look at the world through the eyes of other people. Few people outside of English studies understand that English is really about people. We don’t just learn about a language, its history, and its patterns of use. We examine and relate to people. We learn to pick apart a situation, investigate it from many different angles, and relate to the people that are involved. To us, the world isn’t predicted by a formula; it is determined by the people who dwell in it.
English is one of the few majors that I have any experience with that is not based on the information. We learn information, just as our roommates do in their accounting or chemistry classes, but our classes are about far more than any pile of information. We are pushed to think about, interpret, and pick apart everything we encounter. We’re taught to think in ways that are outside of our normal ideologies, to challenge popular views, and to understand what things really mean. We study texts, but a text is not just words on a page. The way a group of girls stands together in the quad to giggle and gossip is a text. When one boy wears a cap facing forward and another wears his facing backward, those are both examples of texts. Everything is a text and in learning to think critically about texts, what a student of English learns invades every inch of his or her life. We are not merely filling our minds, but expanding them in so many ways, and changing our lives in the process.
When it comes to money, I may not be able to argue that I’ll make very much. However, what I can argue is that a certain salary is not how I measure the value of my education. Some English majors do become teachers, simply because they don’t know what else they can do. Even so, a teacher isn’t merely a necessary part of a school system. A teacher is meant to engage and expand the minds of students, to have an impact on individuals, and to give people the gift of learning that should be treasured on any and every level. Whether or not an English major becomes a teacher, each one of us is seeking to change not a world, but a life. If we’re fortunate, we’ll touch the lives of many.
It may be true that we’ll be scraping the insides of our pockets for years to come, rather than driving a luxury vehicle or wearing a pair of shoes with red soles, but we hold our rewards as much more valuable than anything with a price tag. Those rewards are more tangible, but value doesn’t have to be tangible to be real. So the next time you learn that someone is studying English, don’t look down on them, pity them, or mock them. Don’t see their goals and life choices as useless, because that’s far from the truth. Respect them for having the courage to do something that they’re passionate about, rather than surrendering their lives to something they don’t like, out of fear that they won’t make enough to pay the bills. Encourage them in their efforts to touch the lives of others because, at the end of our days, that’s what makes it all worth it.