“Ah, you’re going to be a teacher, then.” I’ve heard this response too many times after disclosing I’m majoring in English. Apparently, everyone’s a fortune teller.
“Don’t say anything—let me read your mind,” I’ll say pre-emptively next time, with my fingers planted on my temples and my lips snarled. I’ll feign telepathy to cover my frustration.
There is nothing wrong with being an educator. I think this goes without needing to be said. But I’ll state it plainly anyways because I come from a land where people feel strongly about the public-sector labour force: especially teachers. For many, teachers are lazy creatures with their three-month stretch of holidays and annoying union protections. This line of thinking is so far from the truth—but the average citizen these days would rather take viral memes as truth, then read about the experiences of educators from educators directly.
Regardless, I didn’t become an English major with the intention of teaching. Probably even more stereotypically, I became an English major to acquaint myself with the craft of writing. That is to say, I had my eyes on Creative Writing courses, and managed to take an excess of eight throughout my undergrad career. Six fiction workshops, one creative non-fiction course, advanced writing and rhetoric, and a scriptwriting class introduced me to the various forms of the written word.
Apparently, this all turned me into a blogger.
These courses, of course, did not make me a “better writer” alone but they did offer certain skills and tools to consciously apply to the work that I do here.
There are writing specific degrees out there, and I would not discourage pursuit of this kind. At the same time, it’s important to note that, as my degree progressed, I fell out of creative fiction. My aspirations turned to non-fiction, to rhetoric, and to politics.
I still scrutinize the collection of skills my degree choice has bequeathed me—perhaps because I have internalized this logic of efficient, capitalist production from the people around me. Indeed, we live in a society that demands our talents and abilities be compartmentalized into “soft skills” and “hard skills” for faster and cheaper extraction of value from the world around us—material or otherwise.
This is not a recent phenomenon. The Arts have been looked down upon since Socrates and Plato entered into the Philosophical arena, debating the merit of sophistry. Flip through some of Plato’s dialogues, and you’ll learn about Art’s nefarious undertaking is to distract the mind from reason and corrupt the soul. Listen to Tyson and Bill Nye talk, and you’ll find a painful pessimism of the validity of the Arts in pursuing truth.
To each their own, I guess. But I’ll never stop defending English majors and by virtue all Art majors.
People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there. – Cormac McCarthy, The Road.
Here is a list of all the “useful skills” you’ll acquire as an English Major that might come in handy in the aftermath of the apocalypse.
1. During the Post-Apocalypse struggle for crucial resources, everyone will need a word-savvy leader . . .
All that time wasted in University reading and writing and studying rhetoric will come in handy. In the wasteland, the one’s standing up and offering words of advice, encouragement, and leadership like Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead will be the English majors who have a variety of inspirations from literary history to draw from to make their points.
2. With no Netflix, you’ll be the prized Cataloger of good content . . .
In the shell of the city, there is no electricity—therefore no internet and beloved streaming services. For good old-fashioned binging, people will be consuming books on mass. Being well-read yourself, you’ll be kept around for your exquisite taste in literature, as well as the insights you can provide.
3. As the mastery of language fades . . .
You will be able to keep the remaining population literate. As children appear out of thin air, who better to pass on a history of words? Of course, this all depends on the Post-Apocalyptic Scenario: if it’s The Road or Children of Men, then no need to worry about the education level of the next generation (not that we worry in our contemporary society, which is best characterized by ruthlessly slashing and burning education budgets from K – Post-doc).
4. If you’re the sole-survivor with an animal companion . . .
You will know which books are worth reading over and over, and which will serve as fire-fuel. You can ironically burn Robinson Crusoe to cook your mutton, or torch Fahrenheit 451 to keep you and Dogmeat warm for the Holidays.
5. But if there are no more books (this is an oft imagined dystopian future) . . .
You will become the story-teller. Surrounding the camp-fire, beneath the starry-night, all eyes and ears will be on you to entertain, to soften the harshness of the day-to-day competitiveness of the post-apocalypse. You know, a land where dubious traders with donkeys and their goods in tow as the blistering heat boils their backs. Indeed, a land where a dwindling population competes for bottles of water and offers their blood to wealthy monarchs for another opportunity to till the earth, enriching the monarch.
This all sounds familiar to me.
When any civilization is dust and ashes,” he said, “art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning—human meaning, that is—is defined by them. You have to admit that. – Margaret Atwood, Orxy and Crake
I’m anticipating the apocalypse—but with confidence that English Majors will be the ultimate rulers of the wastes. They will be the last bastion of the archive of the humanities.
But in all seriousness, it’s silly to consider degree choice in the finite terms of skills. After all, the University was not founded with the purpose of passing on skills in the employable sense of the word. Times are changing—the labour market demands more and more “useful skills”—but there is certainly a remarkable difference between hard skills and soft skills.
The ability to communicate effectively, the patience and wit to collaborate with a team, the confidence to present your work, and the creativity to offer unique solutions to problems is what an English Degree offers. These can be difficult things to put on a CV or Resume. Yet, in the work-place, these are some of the most crucial skills needed to “advance” along with a career track.
The English major develops a mastery of language, which can be applied to a variety of scenarios, most importantly (in my mind) diplomacy. You will know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. – Stephen King, The Stand
English Majors are always in a defensive stance. They raise their bulwarks as they are pelted questions from friends and families—unexpectedly like a volley of arrows from behind the hill: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “So you want to be a teacher?” “What are you going to do with that?”
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We will curl underneath the deck of a suburban home—the one we spent our childhood dreaming of living in—and read until we are indistinguishable from the soil. Perhaps, we will go on a Moby Dick inspired cruise across the Atlantic. Not because we are looking for satisfaction, or a fulfilling adventure to share on Instagram, but to flee from the demands of concerned friends and family—who think we should be doing something practical—something that builds a better future for ourselves.
But what about the world? Who spends their nights dreaming of a better world of tomorrow.
Sorry—it is difficult to separate your concern for our future from your condescending tone. Does your Degree choice actually keep you up at night? Or are you justifying your own—hollow—life choices?
At times, we are aggressive in our response. There is no denying this fact, but our degrees have conditioned us to respond this way. We don’t need to hear these questions over and over: each with a smart-ass grin, a hearty laugh as if this were some unfounded, original—and HILARIOU—joke. We must be a joke: hence, our finding careers as baristas and servers.
At least someone is shaking your drinks, and salting your fries.
If we bite your head off, or simply don’t laugh along with your betraying joke—instead offering a scowl—realize it’s because you are filling us with even more existential dread. The dismal prospects of academia have diluted our dreams and our hopes. The literature we read, and all its socio-political commentary, has drained our optimism for the future. So, we aren’t as future-oriented as the general population. That is not to say, however, that we are completely emptied of goals, plans, and ambitions: we are just more practical than our STEM counterparts. We’ve been planning for things not going our way, for the end times since English 101.
In other words, we prepare for the fact our “dreams” might not spring forth. We are quite aware that compromises are a necessity of the job market. Once our degree is completed, we aren’t stooped by the question of “what now!?” because we’ve been mulling over it for over the past four years. We’ve planned, and charted backup plans, and considered fail-safes—and what to store and who to save when the apocalypse is finally upon us.
Yes—the English majors have been preparing for the apocalypse since day one, considering our vocational choice is consistently under threat by the ossification of the University. Its transformation into a market-force, tasked with the sole responsibility of babysitting young-adults and producing economically viable subjects.
“They must be workforce READY! Books do not make for compartmentalizable labour!”
Most of us who pursue academia as a career choice will be forced to work as adjunct professors or lecturers for minimum wage. Our minimum of ten years of education will be put to use in shallow writing departments, training Engineers or Nurses in the craft of writing, shaking the poor habits of High school out of them.
A few of us might be lucky: finding work in unpaid internships at Publishing Houses. But a few of us score wonderful employment in the growing field of Library Science and Digital Humanities. Many of us will continue as successful entrepreneurs, bloggers, and business managers. Dozens of us will craft a niche in the entertainment industry—from social media to spoken word poetry. More and more of us will get jobs in the out-of-control tech industry as technical writers and team leaders. Certainly, some of us will become wonderful teachers. And some will settle, comfortably, in the service industry brewing coffee for snobs because they find the work fulfilling and rewarding.
Who are you to say otherwise?