Op-Ed

Study English Lit to acquire 'marketable' skills? That's a bad argument

There’s a tendency among English professors to pitch and plead for our subject as, counterintuitively, a practical choice for the student of today facing the job market of tomorrow.

We aren’t wrong about that. Study after study backs us up, while at regular intervals yet another corporate CEO or Silicon Valley guru trumpets the value of a degree in English or Philosophy or Classics. English majors are making a perfectly pragmatic decision, one that will help them cultivate the “soft skills” employers want — critical thinking, communication, creative problem solving, collaboration — while also nurturing the intellectual curiosity and mental agility that will serve them well when the careers of the future turn out to be ones we couldn’t predict. Liberal arts graduates are not doomed to serve Frappuccinos to MBAs: They are teachers and journalists, writers and doctors, artists and executives. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was an English major; so were Sting, Sally Ride, Clarence Thomas and Emma Watson. There is no straight line from a BA in English to one specific job — but that’s an advantage, not a drawback.

Yet the myth persists that an English degree is at best decorative and at worst debilitating, and the number of English majors is declining. Why should this be? How can it be, when the facts are on our side? It’s both disheartening and baffling.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it’s partly our fault — that our self-promoting argument, though a sound one, is the wrong one, and also a self-defeating one. Because here’s the truth: If your priority is to improve your marketable skills, you certainly can do that — indeed, you will do that — in my class on the Victorian novel, but you do not actually need my class on the Victorian novel, or any other literature class, for that purpose.

Studying “Middlemarch” is simply not a necessary condition for learning critical thinking or communication skills. Many other classes will help with that, and they might do it more efficiently. Reading “Middlemarch” is taking the long way around to those generic ends.

The only thing you’ll get in a class on the Victorian novel that you won’t get anywhere else is an education in the Victorian novel. If we want students to choose an English degree over other programs equally able to improve their soft skills, we need to make our best case for that specific experience — not just for the value of studying “Bleak House,” “Jane Eyre” or “Middlemarch,” of course, but for the importance of engaging with our vast, diverse, vexing and exhilarating literary culture, from “Beowulf” to the Beat poets, from Tennyson to Toni Morrison. The utilitarian defense we’ve been relying on tacitly concedes the fundamental irrelevance of our actual subject. No wonder we’re demoralized. No wonder it sometimes seems as if our own students — or, more to the point, our prospective students — don’t know what we have to offer.

So what is the best case for studying English? I could start with the research psychologists are doing on the crucial role that reading fiction plays in developing empathy, or with the eloquent case philosopher Martha Nussbaum has made for the ethical advantages of seeing the world as a novelist does — one like Henry James “on whom nothing is lost,” or one like Charles Dickens, who in “Hard Times,” delivers a stinging rebuke to just the kind of reductive economic utilitarianism currently dominating conversations about higher education. Or I could point to programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature, which show the transformative potential, both personal and social, of the imaginative exercise literature demands.

But these arguments still skip over what made most of us readers first and English majors second: the thrill of discovering what words can do, and of thinking hard about what they mean. Literature is not just a means to other ends. Like all art, it deserves attention for its own sake — and also for ours. Literature is the record of the many stories we have told about ourselves and our world, and of the many ways we have found to use language artfully and beautifully, but also cruelly and obtusely. It both reflects us and shapes us. We don’t need any excuses for taking it seriously.

Standing up for what we actually teach might turn out to work better than we imagine. Even those who claim to see no use for literature often implicitly acknowledge its importance, especially at times of high emotion or deep significance — weddings, for instance, or funerals. How often do people turn to poetry because they recognize, on some level, that it offers them something they can’t find anywhere else?

But even if this isn’t a winning strategy, at least we would be advocating for our classes in a principled way, rather than trying to convince people that they should study George Eliot to practice their teamwork.

Don’t major in English if your goal is to acquire marketable skills. Or at any rate, don’t take my class on the Victorian novel for that reason. Take it because you’ve heard that “Middlemarch” may be the greatest 19th-century English novel and you want to experience it for yourself. You’ll probably end up a better thinker because of it, but “Middlemarch” itself is reason enough to be there. It will be my job and my pleasure to help you understand why.

Rohan Maitzen is an associate professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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