I’ve written in my posts “why study history” and “why study the liberal arts” that the reason why the liberal arts are in university (and indeed have always been the core of the university curriculum up to the 1960s), is because they are, in fact, sciences. That is, they use reason and logic to continually aim at furthering our knowledge in all those fields which have to do with human society, mentality, culture, and art. These subjects have historically been the foundation of philosophy. Historically, science evolved from philosophy – without philosophy, there can be no science. Those who know the history of science know this well–unfortunately, this is not taught enough–yet.
In any event, the arts are key to understanding everything about human society, and how people interact with each other, and culture, including politics, economics, psychology, and a lot of other obviously ‘useful’ subjects. But many will balk at studying things like “English” (or art history), because they seem to be merely studying cultural artefacts. How useful can it be, in the case of English, to know all about a bunch of poems and stories?
Well, most people realize, upon reflection, that the primary ‘practical’ benefit is learning how to write. By studying all of the best authors, by really reading thousands of pages of the best fiction (and much non-fiction), and by studying under professors who themselves are masters of critiqueing literature and writing, you get about as good an education in writing as you could get. Creative writing classes might be a very minor help, but in fact, the best way to learn is to read the masters, and then to attempt to emulate them, and/or to write critical prose about them. But there are far more benefits to being an english major than simply “to be good at writing.” Which is a very bland statement, and inarticulate, but about as far as most people (even many english majors) get regarding the benefits of their education.
So, here’s the Platonist’s list of benefits of being an English major (a decision which benefits both you, and society):
1) Writing a critical essay is a skill that is taught throughout the arts (and sciences, and business and engineering, for that matter: though the format is slightly different for science reports, the whole purpose and method is remarkably similar, and few people realize this). Good english papers, at a good school in a rigorous program, should focus on
a) proving a thesis.
b) providing supporting arguments, presented in a clear, logical, structured way, and each of these should be supported by their own supporting arguments, many of which are derived from the texts that you are studying.
In short, english papers are scientific research papers, and thus, they teach logic, and research skills, as well, and as purely, as any other type of scientific research can do.
2) This is because the study of English is in fact a specialized branch of History. It is the history of the English language in written form (and, in recent decades, in any media which has survived). So, by studying English, you are becoming an historian, and to be an historian you are in effect a scientist, who comes up with theses, and then proves that they are correct: you find gaps in our knowledge, or assumptions that have been made, and then prove that they either are or are not true, by doing original research. This requires all the same high-level philosophical and analytical skills as any other type of scientist.
3) But, english also has its own specific benefits. A philosophy major once called english ‘diet philosophy’ because in many english classes, it can feel as if you are attempting to apply whatever strands of philosophy or ideology that you might have picked up from various schools of literary theory, or elsewhere, and generally doing so in a less systematic way than philosophy students would be able to do. In fact, literature is a very complex genre, which, in order to analyze it properly, requires a good deal of theoretical knowledge, including psychoanalysis, marxism, feminism, many modes of philosophy, various modes of political philosophy, a good knowledge of historical contexts in which your work was written, including art history, social history, political history, as well as literary theory proper (i.e., the history of literary criticism), and also a history of literature, and thus of literary contexts. And the further back in time you study, the more contexts you will need to know something about in order to appreciate the piece of literature that you are working with. When you become an english major, you pick up, therefore, a broad nexus of all of the liberal arts, if you are in a good program, and if you are open to such things.
4) Flowing from the previous point, literature, like history, is a great way to benefit from all of the humanities and social sciences, and it can form a backbone for all of these things. The best way to study literature, to get the most out of it, is to start with two introductions to the history of british literature. Skip american at first, becasue it only covers four centuries, and only has some of the richness of the british tradition. Britsh literature started in the dark ages, and has been significant in every single century since then. When you do Brit Lit surveys, you in essence learn a history of england, but also of British (and thus European) intellectual history, because literature reflects the intellectual contexts in which they were created, and the best stuff always dialogues with these ideas. So, in short, being an english major, and taking a broad temporal scope as your realm of study can give you a working competence in the whole of the western intellectual tradition, including politics, social movements, art, feminism, psychology, and even science and medicine. (And I would say: do everything but 20th century – because 20th you can pick up in bookstores, but to appreciate pre-20th, you need someone to guide you properly to it–ok, a little c20th, but not after 1945, for sure).
5) The best literature is not ‘diet philosophy.’ Rather, it is applied philosophy. The best literature takes the most elabrate philosophical, psychological, economic, historical, and aesthetic ideas, and then blends them seamlessly with scenarios acted out between real-life people. Some of the best instances of this were done in the nineteenth century: e.g., George Elliott (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D’Urbervilles), and Henry James (Wings of the Dove, Turn of the Screw). Because philosophy is purely analytical, abstract, and scientific, it is arguable that philosophy is unreal–less real, than literature. Literature does not separate life from philosophy, but presents both at the same time, as it is lived. Thus, it can be argued that literature is, if anything, more complex, and more real, and more serious, than philosophy.
6) And the best poetry takes these interpersonal, and sometimes solitary and meditative traditions, and packs so much meaning, so many layers, into a few words, in a few lines, that you come closer to realizing the pure potential of the human mind, what it is capable of, when you read the best poems. Wordsworth, Baudelaire, of course Shakespeare, but also John Donne - if you take the time to unpack each word, you will see that in each line, in each stanza, there can be an entire world. The experience of paraphrasing poetry, to truly unpack as many meanings as possible out of a few lines – and to know that the authors did in fact mean most of them (when it is done right, analysis of poetry is almost miraculous what it can reveal in certain gems of poems) is to become a true master of language and thus of thought itself.
7) Who cares about language? Science and math make money!
Well, the problem is: all human thought arises in, well, thought. Before math and science, we had language, for thousands of years. We are primitive creatures, still. Freud tells us we are 95% subconscious, and the way to fix our brains, thru psychoanalysis, is through talking. We can become horribly damaged if we are introduced to bad situations, purely though language, as children. Language is still the key to our psyches, and the building blocks of our mind. To attempt to skip all of this, and merely deal with equations, is to miss most of what is human in humans, and most of the meaning of life. Literature is far far messier than equations, but it can also be studied in a scientific way. And the best poetry is in essence philosophy. So poetry is anything but wishy-washy. In fact, poetry attempts to get at the truths of life which no one else can get at by any other means. And this is possible, because we are all at heart still primitives. We all love song, and we all naturally want to chant, in poetry – every culture starts with poetry, before it invents prose. Our pop music tradition, wether rap or ‘rock’ or whatever else – is all about rhyming lyrics – and about imagery – and these few images can really stick in our heads. And poetry in most primitive cultures is accompanied by song – so modern music is mostly poetry based, except for the a-lyrical traditions (which are very few, even dance songs have one mantra or another embedded in them, which provide often the entire focus of the song).
So, poetry is so basic, so essential to humanity, that not to know a culture’s poetry, is arguably not to know the culture at all. And literature is just an offshoot of that – sometimes much more complex and precise, in a prosaic way – halfway between poetry and philosophy, then. But, as said above, it can get at some of the very most humanizing, interesting, essential questions of humanity, much faster and much more truly, than any other medium.
8) So, as you become a master of literature, and of poetry, you don’t just become good at writing – but at seeing human relationships. Litererature is mostly about modes of living human life. It’s about interpersonal relationships, and about relationships between people and their environment. As an english major, you become an expert in the history of human relationships – ones from many different centuries, and many different countries, depending on how broadly you study. And many different social classes, and many different towns – and you come to see the things which are essential in human relationships, and which things are particular. And you can apply these, then, to your own life. And this perspective – knowing that there have been hundreds of other people living life in different and similar ways to your own – cannot but give you a great deal of wisdom.
In fact, english majors are in general some of the wisest people there are – many of the most complex and curious people become english majors. Literature is by no means easy to understand – it is far more difficult than math or science – insofar as there are no formulas. You simply have to jump into the relativity which is human life. And then you can find your bearings – there are some things which are constant, and others particular, as stated above – but these bearings that you can find, as you become an english major – they are the bearings in the highway, if you will, of nothing short than human experience, and human life.
I, for one, would never pass up an opportunity to become an expert in humanity itself, while also becoming an expert at expressing yourself.
After all, the only way you can express yourself, in the end, is with language. To be truly meaningful, other media including art, music and math need to be critiqued or explained–using language. Art critics, music critics, movie critics all use language, but scientists and mathematicians, psychologists and economists, in order to explain their theories, also need to express them in language, first of all. Just putting an equation on a page has not helped anyone, be it Einstein, Newton, Freud, or Keynes: they were all masters of prose in their own right. And from the other angle, spoken language is always going to be more unsatisfying, or at least, far less deep, and sustained, and critical, than written language can be, because with writing you have time to develop arguments in much more detail than you ever could with spoken communication (b/c our brains can’t handle listening to arguments nearly so detailed as we can grasp when we have them written out before us, and we can go back over them and read them at our leisure), let alone with math and/or with music alone, even – these things are merely symbolic, and they are self-referential. Language has been called-self-referential, but in fact, it is referential to the entirety of human thought, and human experience, as well as to itself.
Of the four main communication systems, then (language, visual art, mathematics, and music), language is by far the most articulate, and the most capable. Yes, mathematics is exceedingly useful for the sciences, and for creating things which are saleable by companies. But language is the only way to understand and engage with humanity, to make your theories known, to become more articulate.
9) Ok, sure–we’re more wise, and more articulate, if we major in English. What does this mean, in practical terms? We all start out with very broad, general, communications skills. “Don’t do that, I don’t like it.” But when we study english, we learn the ways in which all of the best minds writing in english over the past 1500 years have phrased their dilemmas and experience. As we learn more vocabulary, we become more articulate, and this enables us to understand better what is happening to us. It’s like children, who don’t really know why their parents are doing something, but slowly, they figure out more of how the world actually works. And, the more literature you read, the more you realize that other people’s situations can pertain to your own. This is how the ‘wisdom’ I’ve spoken of above, works in practical ways. As you become articulate, and as you accumulate hundreds of examples of fictional characters acting in situations, you will find ways to apply your own situation to theirs, and vice versa, so that you will realize that when you are a young woman, and your father is attempting to act in a patriarchal fashion, you can suddenly realize that instead of saying “Don’t do that, I don’t like it,” you can say:
“Dear dad, when you talk about women on the TV in that objective way, you are in essence saying that I, as a woman, am basically only useful to serve your own masculine agenda. I’ve seen you talking and acting like that over many years. And that is probably why you and mom haven’t gotten along for the past 20 years, because I can see that mom actually wants more from life, and without realizing it, you two have both created a patriarchal space where she tacitly doesn’t question certain of your assumptions, while she at the same time has internalized the oppressor to the extent that she feels that it’s her duty to serve you your dinner every night and perform other tasks for you, and stroke your ego in various counterproductive ways which serve only to blind you to the problems that your attitudes are creating, even though she knows that she wants to be liberated from this hierarchical thought structure, but at the same time, she feels guilty about it, so she doesn’t go so far as to articulate exactly what is bothering her. Thus, you have both gotten stuck in a serious rut in your marriage, which has left you both feeling unfulfilled, which if only you would get a bit of perspective, you could work towards a positive solution for your difficulties, rather than continually harming each other, largely because you have never realized any better, becuase you do not have enough perspective. So, for a start, I wish that in my presence, and that of my friends, you wouldn’t say that the only use for a woman is to look hot in a bikini, even if you claim that you’re only saying it to the TV–this will help me to gain a more positive self image, and help me to free myself from the tyranny of our household thought-processes, so that I have a chance to create a better marriage than you and mom have been able to do, and hopefully a healthier environment in which to raise my children, in which men and women can hope to interact more as equals, rather than as neanderthals.”
Now of course, you would never say all of that at once, but, if you major in English, you will have the chance to view numerous male-female interactions, from many different perspectives, and it will help you to articulate the intricate spoken and unspoken, symbolic and prosaic, physical and mental power structures which enmesh all people, every time they communicate. And it doesn’t have to be feminist – that is just one obvious example – where a high school girl can go from being almost entirley inarticulate “don’t do that, I don’t like it,” to coming home from college, and having a vast arsenal of ideas and theoretical concepts at hand, so that she can quickly and easily diagnose what is going on in any given interpersonal relationship. Thus, being an english major does give you a pretty good start on being a psychologist–but not just a psychologist, but a self-actualizer, a self liberator. A person who is as little bound by the unexamined assumptions that have kept most people locked in under-achieving situations as can be.
And english majors in the aggregate are, as I now realize from living in a country where they have few literature majors, incredibly important to the health, vitality, and maturity of a country’s thought processes. In Holland, where they have no english majors, the culture is very prosaic. Where are the writers? Where are the poets? Where ate the music lyricists, and movie-score writers, which are so common, and so talented, coming out of the english-speaking world? Why are english-speakers the world leaders in music lyrics, and most other types of literature, (excepting french cinema, I’d say, in terms of it’s delicious psychological complexity) for going on 50 years? Because the english-speaking world has very advanced literature programs, compared with any other educational system. (In Europe they teach “philology”–i.e., the history of vocabulary, done almost entirely without referencing works of literature!!! Sounds crazy, and boring — and it is, and it produces very dull, abstract-theoretically-minded people who know the vocabulary of a lot of languages, and a lot of theories of the development of grammar. Whew!) So, I’d say, that in general, having english be a common major has been a huge boon. This is not to mention, we are the world-leaders in articulating almost every type of science – whether it is management research, or scientific research, and i would argue that that is becasue our english departments create a university-wide very high standard of literacy, which without them, would not be there – so that’s another benefit, which basically guarantees the anglophone world the very top spot in almost every branch of world resaerch…in other words, yes, I am ascribing our economic supremacy, to no small degree, to our high literary standards, whose primary purpose after all is to create more articulate thought – and thus more deailed, and more scientifically correct thought, and more creative thought, than ever before.
So in short, why study english?
1) write better
2) write scientific prose
3) learn to think critically, like a scientist, logician, philosopher.
4) learn a skeleton/nexus for all of the liberal arts.
5) master literature, which is an applied version of almost all of the arts rolled into one.
6) master poetry, which is concentrated human experience, in its deepest, and arguably highest form.
7) Master language, which of the four communications systems (language, art, mathematics, and music) is by far the most versatile, complex, and capable of the greatest breaths of representation.
8) become far wiser about human relationships, and also humanity in its totality: there is no better way to experience hundreds of different peoples lives, from different times and countries, than by majoring in english: it’s literally a free time machine, which can also teleport you all over the globe, at any time in the past (or future), instantly.
9) Become far more articulate, become self-actualizing and self-liberating, which gives you power, and is key to achieving managerial positions.
10) Reading hundreds of lives over your four years as an english major, gives you unprecedented tools for assessing the true nature of your own life, and its power structures. This, more than anything else you could study, enables you to see when abuses are taking place, and gives you the presence of mind, the proper words, and the experience, to stand up and be counted when it is necessary, to right wrongs, and, crucially, to recognize when bad things are happening – things that most people have simply never had enough experience to realize might be doing them harm, in subtle ways, that they may not notice otherwise.
11) Oh, and I almost forgot: one of the principal joys of being an english major, is that you learn the arts of subtlety, and, espeically, irony. You learn how to take a critical distance, by learning the masters. While children everywhere are generally without irony (innocent); and most adults only very imperfectly learn how to take ironic distances from situations – as an english major you become a master of irony – knowing when, and how to use it, how to detect it, and, perhaps best of all, being able to take a philosophical distance from what seem to be big problems in your own life. Most cultures on the earth contain very little irony: this is why eastern europeans can like David Hasslehoff as a singer. Notice how cheezy most TV from the third world seems (catch any indian or pakistani movies lately, or any mexican soaps?) This is b/c their cultures do not value irony. Irony, in essence, is enlightenment – it’s growing up, it’s becoming truly adult, truly human, and/or capable of being critical. Without irony, you remain non-critical, incapable of bettering yourself because you see no problem with what you were born into. Now english majors don’t have a monopoly on irony – but majoring in english will give you ample opportunities to expand your ability to work in several levels of critical subtlety. A major gift (and one reason why english culture, specifically, is so beautifully ironic – and articulate.). We live in the “age of irony” as it’s been called –but you can’t participate, unless you can step above situations yourself (which is prerequisite for irony).
So, finally, becoming an english major makes you something like a demigod, in ways that people who have not majored in english will never be able to realize. Many majors do give you a specialty, and a bit of superhero-esque ability. For an english major, this area of expertise is language, it is being articulate, and it is becoming an expert at human relationships, and relationships between people and their environments. As the key to self-actualization, to lifting yourself out of “Plato’s cave,” that is not a bad super-power to have, I think.