So I was walking around my bookstore, straightening shelves and adjusting product when a customer suddenly approached me and confessed regretting every English degree she had achieved – right up through the Ph.D.
Nothing had turned out like she planned. People got in the way, had foiled her at every turn, and now she was questioning every move she’d made professionally. Never, she’d said, would she allow her children to major in the Arts and waste their time. Never.
Know what my thought was? (Prepare for irreverence…)
Then you’re not using it right.
What IS an English Degree?
An English BA is a wild, carefree trip through the Humanities. It allows the student to explore their undecided side… perhaps fiction, or philosophy, journalism, or psychology, religion or art, history or politics, law or logic. It allows the student to try on a few hats, test their interests and abilities, see if anything “calls” to them.
The problem is, sometimes something does. And in today’s world, there is nothing like a degree in the Arts that translates into poverty for most of its graduates.
Why is that? Because we no longer value people who critically think in this world. Thinkers are dangerous people. When they see something that is wrong they are wont to try and change things. And there is usually Big Money and wanton Power attached to things done wrong.
If you want to kill an army, you need to cut off the supply train. (See? I was paying attention in history class!)
Arts people are the canaries in the mines. Often times we make bold, scary-to-parents statements. We rattle cages and in some countries we risk our freedom or our lives just to make a statement.
Nothing scares people who love you more. Because they want you to have a nice, cushy life in the suburbs, and hope that you will be (in better ways) a nice little carbon copy of themselves to carry on the magic and fairy glamour of American Life.
And Technology is out there promising you that you too, can be smarter than everyone else and with the right career choices in math and science, can live in the Big House, safe and away from those huddled masses of unemployed, trouble-making Arts people.
But getting a degree in a Tech field as an Arts person really solves nothing. Tech people know their own, and if you are an Arts person in Wolf’s clothing, you will not be embraced even if you get the job.
Today’s world does not want thinkers, it wants drones. Like the bee kind… That work to death and are tossed out of the hive at Christmas (only they will call them lay-offs).
An English Degree then is a degree in Critical Thinking. You will be taught how to and be required to dissect everything you read and everything you think. You may find out you don’t think like you thought you did. You may discover something deeply important about yourself by what you dislike or prefer, in hearing a tone of voice in your own verbal arguments.
It also teaches you how to express those thoughts and opinions – graciously to not offend, or disguised as metaphor for your secret audience, or angry as a polemic. It shows you how to use words or pictures or cultural beliefs to communicate….anything.
And it teaches you that people are complex biological factories of precarious thought and driven by powerful, life-altering emotions; that we are subject to our neurobiology and our psychological quirks, religious views or lack thereof, limits or expanse of geographical and economic horizons…
A degree in English is a degree in seeing, describing, illustrating, comprehending and communicating with…people.
No wonder the tech world dislikes us. No one abhors the vacuum of html space like an English major.
(Why? Because it’s not the troll online you have to worry about. It’s the radical terrorist invading your country and condemning your right to speak freely, to converse, argue, condemn, endorse, explore and experiment… because if your words, your actions, or your ambivalence made him or her feel justified, then to reduce the number of terror candidates you better know it and know how to unmake him or her and whether or not you should…a task that is not on a computer game.)
An English major will teach you that words matter. They have the capacity to incite, to wound, to inform, to heal. It will teach you to see and recreate the difference.
How You Know You’re An English Major
You know you’re an English major when you’re just standing on the street corner and you see things. You see poverty, injustice, inequality, and homelessness in the richest country in the world – when you work forty hours and can still see homelessness from your back porch and bank account. You know you’re an English major when you can’t wait to read something for yourself – whether it is a novel, a political treatise, or the Trial of Socrates. You know you’re an English major when you’d rather read Dickens or Austen or Morrison than the latest Star Trek novel (even though you have an extensive Star Trek novel collection).
You know you’re an English major when you’ve tried not to be and you keep running screaming back to the English department, breathing a sigh of relief when you are finally seated in a rhetoric class because you know the definition of rhetoric.
You know you’re an English major when you love language, the way it works and sounds and looks on the page, when linguistics excites you, when you read dictionaries and thesauri. When you love saying “thesauri.”
You know you’re an English major when you can read and appreciate an opposing viewpoint because it is well stated and well argued. And especially if it changes your mind.
You know you’re an English major when you know you are nothing else. So stop letting other people make you feel ashamed. Own it. Do what you were meant to do and stop looking for wealth (Most of us aren’t going to get it anyway: you might as well be happy.)
How You Know Doing Something Else is Worse Than Everyone Else’s Disappointment in You
One thing the world has taught me is that for every job out there, there is someone who has made it their dream and life’s purpose.
And there is nothing worse than living someone else’s dream… Unless it is applying for the job that you don’t get (no matter how much it means to you) because someone who’d rather be doing something else gets the job instead. Or maybe it is working with that person…
But work – when it is done right – takes a lot out of you. What you will have left at the end of the day will determine what kind of life YOU have…family? Kids? Career plans? House? Decent car? Best-selling novel?
The sad truth is that if you are an Arts person, the economic deck is stacked against you. Not only has the American economy morphed into a tech-loving, art-stomping beast, but it has lost its middle class and that necessary plateau of jobs needed to support people who kind of don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. In this economy, you either “have it” or you “don’t”… and there is a good chance that if you are an Arts person with an English degree, you will be not in the right category. Who knows how long this will last? How many shifts flipping burgers have your name on them with or without a degree?
However one thing is for sure: happiness is the only way you’re going to survive whatever lies ahead. Dreams are the pathway to finding that happiness. I’ve gotten a lot of forty-hour mileage out of dreams.
Maybe there aren’t enough jobs in publishing right now, or enough opportunities to support all of the writers already out there. How do the rest of us fellow-writers and English majors know you aren’t The One who will shock it all back into sense? How do we know WE aren’t?
The only thing we DO know, is that when and if the world ever comes back to its senses, if there is any chance at all that you can make a living writing or with your English degree…you will need to be prepared. Do it now.
Really. The Zombie Apocalypse could happen at any moment. Wouldn’t you rather have your English degree when it does?
What You Can Do About It
Number One: Stop listening to other people who want you to be as professionally miserable as they are.
Number Two: Trust that somewhere out there is your ideal job and that your English Degree is required for it.
Number Three: Don’t stop until you FIND it.
Number Four: If you don’t find it, consider creating it.
Why You Should
The Arts are not dead.
And while you are toiling away at that data entry job, or trying convince yourself that you can do I.T. better than a person whose dream it is to be an I.T. person… other people out there have been honing their Art…and making money at it…working their way to some measure of fame. You – on the other hand – are still waiting to write in your spare time, hope that by Divine Intervention instead of practice you will do as good or better with your one offering to the world (if you finish it), and still believe in the myth that even one published book equates to a lifetime of riches.
The hard fact is, any career in the Arts requires years of study (not necessarily academic study, although that can help make you a better student of the Arts). There is no free lunch, and prodigies are indeed a rarity (contrary to the message of social media).
You may have talent, or you may not. You may have more talent than people getting published or not. Success in the Arts is shaped like the very same pyramid you find in the regular workplace, sometimes with plenty of cult priests with butts to kiss perched on the steep slopes, sometimes with rare Oracles you can barely hear dangling off a brick, and sometimes there is that pebble in the sand – the editor who likes your style and talent enough to gamble on you and approach their boss on your behalf. But you must always remember it is a pyramid, because not everyone is going to wind up on top – even if they climb over you to get there.
So you must have faith in your goal and your plan for getting there. Stop waiting for angels to descend and carry you topside. You are going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before, and probably do a lot of self-education to grow professionally.
A good start is always a BA in anything. But the BA in English is a nice, round humanities degree. It is the perfect base degree for many Master’s degrees, and thereafter for Ph.D. degrees. Getting a BA in English for a writer is boot camp. It will help you decide how far you want to go with your education (in any field), while teaching you about your passion and your ability to listen to and apply criticism – something you will need even as a novice writer submitting stories to magazines, book editors, or agents.
Keep in mind there are actual jobs out there that require a BA in English – such as those still remaining in publishing, Library, retail bookstores, technical writing, journalism, education, Literary Criticism – and many of which do require higher education thereafter.
But also keep in mind there are a lot of English majors applying for those, and there is the same kind of (let’s call it “competition”) for those positions as there are for other jobs.
So you need to know you. What do you want? Because it should never involve a single other person’s interests. Because you are going to have to live with yourself no matter what you choose.
Choose wisely. Choose what makes you happy, even if you have to struggle against the tide the rest of your life. Trust me, the tide is elsewhere too. Pick your own tidewater. If you’re going to make it up that salmon ladder or get eaten by bears trying, it might as well be for what’s in it for you.
How do I know this? It took me thirty years to get my BA in English. And I don’t regret a minute of it.
What I do regret is all of the time I lost following other people’s suggestions for how to make myself less of an English major and more of a cog in someone else’s money machine.
Would I still be working at the same retail bookstore for lower than stellar wages? Probably. Only now I would be a manager with a retirement plan instead of an economic refugee with a lost retirement and no chance of strolling about my own bookstore with a coffee cup and a wry sense of humor.
I am sorry I did not have the courage when I was young to be what I am – a writer. Of Horror fiction. Who works in a bookstore. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to seek out teachers of fiction and fellow writers in workshops and conventions. I might still not be big-published, but I bet I’d be writing better fiction, and that would make me happy no matter how many shifts I worked.
No, I would never discourage anyone – especially a young person – from a life in the Arts. That IS life. Gritty, poor, honest. What could be a better inheritance than a life well-lived – the one that leaves YOU loving YOU.
So yep, I told this lady wandering my bookstore I had not a single regret about going back to college for my English BA. I told her why.
She asked if we had any openings…