Declaring my English major was probably the best thing that has happened to me at Vanderbilt. While my parents would probably disagree, my experiences over the past four years have taught me that English majors (a nod to Philosophy majors here as well) are some of the most well-adjusted, creative, thoughtful and open-minded individuals at this school. And my English and writing-based classes, regardless of how well or how poorly I did in them, have been consistently the most rewarding classes I’ve taken here. Enough with the “barista” jokes everyone — it’s time to appreciate the widely-unrecognized benefits of spending your four collegiate years with your head in a book and your pen to paper.
This has been a risky column to write. Penning anything as an English major (or even worse, as an editor) opens one up to digs about minute grammar mistakes and poorly constructed sentences; these slip-ups will be used as ammunition to invalidate entire arguments and to tear down credibility. Hopefully, I’ll avoid any misplaced commas that might give you cause for doubt.
For the uninitiated, English classes involve more than reading literary classics, understanding references and picking apart pieces of poetry and lines of prose. My classes have helped me come to better understand the world as it was, is and will be, all through the lens of literature. I’ve had classes that have focused deeply on censorship, race in the South, modern colonialism, Caribbean immigration patterns, feminism, and twentieth century psychology, and that have touched on too many other topics to count. I’m a better person for immersing myself in these ideas, most of which were entirely foreign or unknown to me before. I’m more open-minded, self-aware and worldlier for discussing these subjects with my classmates and for writing and performing research on them. Literature serves a purpose beyond entertainment; it provides the reader with a gateway to new perspectives. As author George .R.R. Martin puts it in “A Dance with Dragons,” the fifth installment of his doorstopper series A Song of Ice and Fire, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
This column would be remiss to skip over what has been the chief benefit of taking all of these English classes: improving my communication skills. I’ve always been fond of language — maybe a little too fond. Under the generously lenient oversight of Mr. Kelly, my high school English teacher, my idea of eloquence ballooned into cramming as many adjectives, adverbs and clauses into my sentences as grammatically possible, a la William Faulkner. The size of my writer’s ego was directly correlated with the length of my sentences.
My English courses here have sharpened what was a six-foot wooden club (with which I beat my professors and readers over their collective heads) into a leaner, more elegant, more direct implement, helping me find my style without sacrificing my voice. I can communicate my views more confidently and correctly, and I can argue more effectively and cohesively. All of these things have benefits in professional and academic life, not to mention in communicating my feelings and strengthening my personal relationships to boot.
While this is all well and good, reading and writing about the works of luminaries past and present for four years has made me realize how terrible of a writer I really am in the scheme of things. Still, I’m left with a craft I can hone for the rest of my life and look forward to improving upon. I’ve never had a greater appreciation for the power of editing and self-reflection as when I’m able to look back on something I’ve written a day afterward and realize how unsatisfied I am with it. English classes have taught me patience when I edit and re-edit my pieces, and pore over volumes of reference material searching for the perfect quote.
With these skills, many English majors have taken their degrees to great heights, even in recent years. Hank Paulson, Clarence Thomas, Conan O’Brien, Barbara Walters, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Mitt Romney, Michael Eisner, Sally Ride and Ken Jennings (Ken Jennings!) all have one thing in common: they were all English majors. These CEOs, financiers, politicians, millionaires, billionaires, astronauts and captains of industry all benefitted from the critical thinking, attention to detail and ability to hold an entertaining dinner conversation that was drilled into them as English majors. After picking apart sentences, reading between the lines and appreciating nuances in the works they read in college, these people have worked their ways to the tops of their respective fields.
I don’t want this column to devolve into a BuzzFeed-esque “25 People You Didn’t Know Were English Majors” (it could) but I think these few examples serve to illustrate the range of applicability and effectiveness of the training an English major undergoes. Attention to detail, learned from placing commas correctly, matters when constructing models in investment banking. The ability to communicate effectively, learned from years of writing essays, matters when you’re in a debate against fellow presidential candidates. Arguing your point forcefully matters when you’re on the bench with eight other Supreme Court Justices. And an encyclopedic knowledge of 19th century Victorian literature matters when you’ve just stumbled upon the Daily Double in Jeopardy.
The world needs math majors. The world needs chemistry majors. The world needs engineers. And I’ll admit that maybe the world doesn’t really “need” English majors. But I, and many others, I think, are glad that we have them.