by Marie Veillette
The conversation always goes the same way.
“What are you majoring in?”
As soon as I say “English,” but before I can add “and mass comm., plus a minor in economics,” the asker has already lost interest or given me a look of pity. (Unless they happen to have majored in English or share a bookish interest as well.)
Usually, if the subject hasn’t been hastily changed, the next question will be a hopeful, “So, do you plan to teach then?”
“No,” I always reply, with a vigorous headshake for good measure. That is almost always enough to kill the conversation completely.
When I first decided to major in English, I knew there would be some people who could never understand why I would choose to go into an arts area. For me, the choice was easy. Math was never my thing; I struggled all the way through pre-calc before opting not to take math as a senior. I liked science, but to major in areas like biology or chemistry requires a great deal of mathematical inclination.
Writing and grammar has always come easily to me. I never struggled to put my thoughts on paper in a way others could understand. I’ve accepted that while some people’s brains are wired to understand complex math algorithms, my brain is wired to understand how to best form complex sentences and punctuate them.
So why are the arts being condemned, cut out and discouraged?
Not only English, but music and art classes are being cut from high schools, and to declare a major in any of these areas brings about a reaction similar to declaring a desire to want to scrape a dirty, smooshed piece of gum off the ground and chew it.
Perhaps part of the disrespect comes from the false idea “anyone can do it.”
The truth is, not everyone can do it.
Yes, anyone can sit down with a pencil and paper or in front of a blank Word document and write something, but that does not mean it will be readable or follow grammatic rules. Half the battle of writing well is thorough self-editing, and that is not possible to do if one does not know where to insert a comma or whether ‘different from’ or ‘different than’ is correct. (FYI, it’s ‘different from.’)
In fact, to say I’m majoring in English doesn’t really explain what I’ve spent the last three years studying at all.
When people say they are studying a language like French or Spanish, it’s usually not their native language. Classes involve learning to pronounce words, properly conjugate verbs and spell new vocabulary. I’ve done none of the above.
With the exception of one grammar class offered, the English major is not like other language majors on campus.
I’ve spent the last three years reading literature from before the English language was formed into what we know it as today all the way to contemporary novels. I have formed critical thinking skills any math major would envy. I spent a whole semester reading Shakespeare, and that one semester changed and grew my understanding of the world and its issues today. I can’t count the number of essays I’ve written, but each one helped solidify my ability to clearly state ideas formed from textual analyzation.
You could say I’ve studied the history of literature as well as deeply rooted cultural traditions, including some that no longer exist today. I have studied the history of people through one of the most intimate expressions of thought: writing.
So, what if the major were renamed to something like textual analysis? Does adding more technical words make the major any more STEM involved? Nope, but reimagining the conversation I laid out in the beginning, it is easy to see how inserting this new name could change the course of it.
Imagine if everyone were interested in STEM majors only. Who would communicate the news? Who would write magazines or books for leisure reading? Who would teach children the love of books only a true literary nerd can understand?
We spend so much time discussing diversity, especially on a college campus, yet it seems diversity in majors and interests is being discouraged. I am not arguing arts are better or more important than sciences; I am arguing they are equally important.
When I first came to college I was slightly ashamed to answer when someone asked what I was studying; I knew the reaction that would follow. Now, I am proud to say I majored in English. I am nearly finished with the program, and I know the value of what I have paid a high price to learn, even if others do not.
Sure, I could have suffered through endless math classes and long labs, chasing the money associated with jobs in those fields, but I would have been extremely unhappy.
Of course I want to make money and support myself. I know one day I may end up doing a job that has unpleasant parts, but that is something universal across all majors no matter how much money is involved.
To forgo what I truly enjoy doing for a life sentence of mathematical drudgery is too high of an opportunity cost for me.