A candid defense of the English major

Kedar Veeraswamy

I write in the wake of two developments, one administrative and one personal. From the administrative side, the College recently announced a 5-percent increase in its comprehensive fee for the 2023-2024 school year, peaking over the $80,000 mark for the first time in history and causing a double take among students and whoever funds their education. On a personal note, I was recently rejected by a host of finance and consulting firms where I sought internships for the upcoming summer. I found failure to be a fine impetus for self-reflection and began to wonder what exactly I am paying for, both in the narrow monetary sense and in a larger spiritual one, as an English major. The value  — or lack of value — of a humanities education is a topic that has vexed job recruiters, op-ed columnists, and universities themselves as of late. Society has seemed to tacitly accept that certain areas of study are “useful” and that others are not, and it is this frame of thought that I wish to refute. 

There are a great number of reasons why disparaging claims against the humanities fall short of merit: One would be hard-pressed to find the practical utility in much of what is taught at the advanced undergraduate level in any discipline (when was the last time an accountant needed to take the partial integral of a trigonometric function?). There is no legitimate ground to claim that one area of study necessitates greater skills in critical thinking or analysis than another, or that a person in one department is smarter, in any sense of that word, than someone in another. The lack of rigidity common in humanities classes does not necessarily connote less serious academic practice or less essential work. Recent discourse on literature as a focus of study, however, is obsessed with the relationship between the content of the books being read and the world in which its students actually live. How can we take anything from Dante’s Divine Comedy, a book that is quite literally 800 years old? Why read fiction at all? What can an English degree give you that something else can’t? 

This last question hits at the core of the issue. Fiction takes many names. Call it storytelling, narrative, myth, or falsehood, but you will always highlight its central dimension: the fact that it did not really happen. Literature’s greatest offering, then, is that which does not happen. If you believe, as I do, that there is a vast meadow of truth in the realm beyond the observed and recorded, one that springs from human ingenuity and imagination, then belief in the power of literature naturally follows. If you believe, as I do, that a fictional story can reach depths of emotion and sensation that no one has ever felt but that we all know are commendable, then belief in the power of literature naturally follows. If you believe, as I do, in the importance of creating something subjective and sovereign, giving your inner verities to the world, then belief in literature naturally follows. 

These claims, however poetic, still do not answer central critiques of the English degree and its worth. Most of us are not in a position to take out a mortgage to feel empowered because of some beautiful and abstract wisdom. Employers need the right talent, and students need full resumes. I think of my parents, who are anthropology- and philosophy-majors-turned-doctors. They want me to write a novel; I plan to go to law school. We agree on the skills and traits that lead to success, and their experience tells them that this is the way I should go. It is the patience and self-confidence that comes with experiencing the profundity of expression that is literature which prepares one for the turmoils of life, and a certain intellectual curiosity that allows people to find what they want and throw themselves into it. All that makes us better workers, parents, and people, and all of the skills needed to communicate this, are found in literature.  

So I suppose the debate boils down to the concept of value. I could tell you how hard my English classes are, or I could list the McKinsey associates who majored in history. Those things might convince you more than any of this, but I choose to highlight the recondite and abstruse because they too tragically go unsaid. What you pay for, as an English major, is the experience of getting something else in a world full of things. And that isn’t just valuable — it’s arguably priceless.

Kedar Veeraswamy ’24 is an English major from Charleston, S.C.