Recently in class we’ve been discussing the future of English as a discipline as well as the value of an English degree and careers that can come from it. Overall there seemed to have been a general consensus that people on the outside do not view English as a worthwhile degree pursuit or even something that should be studied at all beyond the basics of learning how to read.
Sadly, I believe this to be true.
Outsiders do not see the value of an English degree because they cannot put a salary on it. They assume that a student going for an English degree must be trying to be an English teacher, because otherwise there are no jobs available that pay anything. There is a preconception that if you go to college and major in English that you’re actually getting a degree to work at Starbucks in L.A. and pass out terrible movie scripts to anyone that looks like they’re in show business. This image is fueled by characters on television and in movies that are “Writers” and never seem to get a break. Characters that are “Actors” tend to get the same treatment (See Joey on Friends). This idea that people that go into the liberal, creative, or fine, arts never go anywhere has been so dominant in popular culture for such a long time that people that really know nothing about the jobs that come out of the degree take is as a matter of fact, not opinion, that if you are getting an arts degree of some kind, you just wasted a whole lot of money and 4+ years of your life because there are no jobs available.
That said, there is another important reason that the general public disdains the study of English as a discipline. That reason is anti-intellectual bias. Tonight, my room mate was watching Bill O’Reilly, as he is wont to do. I sincerely believe he only does this because he knows how much I hate it, since he is far too smart to buy what these people are selling. Bill was showing clips from an interview he did some time in the past with Dr. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker among other works. Dr. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and was a Professor at the University of Oxford for thirteen years. Like the man or hate him, he is a well-educated, intellectual, person, and he tried to calmly discuss atheism with O’Reilly. Instead of allowing the man to speak and have a rational discussion with him, Bill kept cutting Dawkins off before he could reach his point and trying to say how Dawkins was wrong. This supposed journalist did his red-letter best to try to belittle a renowned intellectual for the benefit of his audience. At the end of the clip it cut back to the live show and O’Reilly began talking about how much of a “Dishonest guy” he was and that he had “Kicked his butt” when even in the short clip he had played he simply made assertions with no evidence, then called it a win. This kind of anti-intellectual bias is rampant in this country and it applies across the board to any kind of University degree program that isn’t “Practical” such as Business, Economics, Engineering, or Information Technology. If you can’t take that four year degree and go out and make 40 to 70 thousand dollars a year with it, congratulations, your degree is useless and you lost years from your life for nothing.
Now, a rant without a solution is just for blowing off steam. “What do you expect us to do to end anti-intellectual bias and stereotyping? Write an essay?” you ask. To which I reply, “There’s no need for sarcasm.” In all seriousness though, there is a lot that can be done. There is, however, no guarantee it will actually work, as I’m not a professional at this. My suggestion as to the first problem, the problem of being pigeon-holed into the notion that we, as English Majors, can only become teachers because “There are no other jobs out there,” is that we actually are bothered to find out what kind of jobs hire English Majors. Are there a lot of Editing jobs? Maybe there are a lot of positions for English majors in the corporate world. Maybe you can work as a transcriber or do something in the entertainment industry. I’m certain there are opening in ad firms and marketing. We have a resistance to quantifying our major in terms of money or a specific job, but that only stems from our agitation at constantly being judged by others. Instead of letting them judge us, we need to refute them with cold, hard, facts, about what kind of job and money we can expect to get and make. If you have an answer ready, even an exaggerated one, that makes sense, people really won’t question you much. If we do this as a whole, perhaps people will eventually stop questioning our worth. As for the second problem, that of anti-intellectual bias, the solution is far more tricky. When encountering the Bill O’Reillys of the world, facts, numbers, and logic don’t mean a thing and there’s a good chance you won’t get a word in edgewise anyway. On a basic level, with the man on the street, you can laugh it off. Make a joke about it. That’ll win them over in the short term. However, the problem comes when the folks with the bias hold the reins of power. When the State House or Senate want to cut your school’s funding, you have to make your objections be heard. They may ignore you anyway, but that’s why you organize and get them out of office. When your school’s board, be it a high school or University, is deciding where cuts can be made and the decide on English? Don’t be silent. Get all your friends and tell the board what you think about their cuts to the English department. Write that essay too, if you want. Just make sure it sounds as good read aloud as it does in your head.
There is a lot more that can be done, far too much to be listed here at this time. There are also far deeper problems that can’t be solved by a lone blogger ranting on the internet close to midnight. But it’s a start.
“Big things have small beginnings” – T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (Film)