One of my final courses in college was, ironically, Introduction to Literary Studies. It’s actually been a course that’s given me much more than I’d expected; by procrastinating, I wound up taking a course for reflection at the very end of my undergraduate career. On our first day, we were tasked with reading Mark Edmunson’s essay titled, “The Ideal English Major.” The next day we discussed what it meant to be an English major, as most of the freshmen began to think of how they could fill those shoes and as I considered where I fit Edmunson’s expectations and where I could yet improve.
Our professor, though, was quick to highlight that we should look at everything with a critical eye. Yes, Edmunson was sure of his argument for an ideal. However, we as students differ from such subjective opinions and expectations every day and, consequently, deviate from the ideal. These deviations are crucial for us to be dynamic and bring something new to discussion every day. As always, there is no objective ideal.
Our final assignment for the class included close readings and comparative essays. I was pleased to find that the final task was rewriting this very same essay with our own considerations of what the ‘ideal’ may be, as an ideal that will guide us on our journeys (for those who really were) and an ideal we’ve found throughout our time attaining the degree. I’m including here my essay, with some minor edits since submission, for what I’d consider to be “My Ideal English Major.” This is immensely valuable, obviously, because I now have a degree in English.
As a university degree becomes increasingly professional, students wonder how they can choose a major to get the best job, create the best network, and move more rapidly through entry-level jobs in their industries; many students consider majoring in STEM in search of a stable post-recession job market. This search greatly limits them, in both life and opportunity, because the attraction of these majors is only temporary in comparison to cultivating a lifelong love of learning, as is done in the liberal arts. More specifically, the study of English within the liberal arts provides a taste of studying life itself, in its history, philosophy, art, and culture in the rich narratives of civilization.
As for its worth, calculated in relation to cost of tuition, job prospects, and preparation for the “real world,” English as a discipline moves beyond the confines of coursework in Homer, Milton, and a Eurocentric reading of language. These courses serve their purpose in introducing students to context, providing a foundation to critically examine works of significance and who determines what is significant or insignificant. To determine what is worth studying in English, and how English breathes life into a university education, students themselves participate in generating meaning from the major. Is it the practice of giving meaning to education that English majors are trained to bring out into the world? Who is the English major each English department hopes to see?
The English major is intensely curious. She is so curious that questions of whose works are read in required coursework permeate her interest in those courses. She learns to be resourceful in reading her assigned texts while remaining intellectually and critically engaged with what she is given. She reads the feminists and wonders how they’ve influenced her before; she grabs a copy of The Sun Also Rises and schemes a trip to Cuba; she keeps her roommates on their toes with just how many books are going to sit on their coffee table each semester. Knowledge is both the object of her pursuit and annoyingly elusive because the more books she reads, the more she wants to know, and the more she must read. Walking beside Bloom, wiping Sethe’s tears, standing outside the 16th Street Baptist Church, and struggling with Lane’s thoughts begin to quench her thirst for knowledge, and yet she seeks out more.
Authors become old friends of the English major. She laughs, at the end of the ordeal of writing a 20-page final paper, because of how self-important Rushdie’s narrator is in each text he writes, and that Rushdie scholars extend that self-importance in their critical work every time they cite their older works as evidence. Eudora Welty, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan become her guides, role models, and, even, family. There is a certain intimacy to reading a text and recognizing its author as an old friend that is a luxury provided to the English major and not many others. The walls of her home can readily become the cathedral of Notre-Dame, a place she may never be able to visit firsthand but whose bells she can hear, looking upon Claude Frollo’s inscriptions on the wall. There is comfort in the familiarity of books and their writers, always keeping the college student company when her friends are out hypothesizing case studies and her childhood home is a three-hour flight away.
The act of reading is dangerous. Fraternizing with ideas, both accepted and defamed, has always been seen as a risk exemplified in our history of banning and burning books. Real reading, then, is as courageous today as it is in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The reader also stumbles upon Yorick’s skull, exclaiming, “Alas, poor Yorick!” to lament his death with Hamlet, traversing a churchyard laden with the corruption of a kingdom to look back on a world today filled with equal sorrow. The reader awakens to the reality of this world more genuinely and more inquisitively than a non-reader would and then questions everything, including all things expected to be unquestionable. Empathy can only sometimes be taught, but with English it is always learned.
The biochemistry major lives in the physical world of cells, within the body, rather than in the creative production of the mind. And this, too, serves an important purpose to the workings of society. But it is the English major who harnesses the energy of those cells to delight in the pleasures of life, to challenge its shortcomings, and to extend the thoughts of the mind to the relationships between people and their words. The world is crafted in language, from the tower of Babel to the memory of Anne Frank, and it is that world that both hosts the English major and is created by the English major. All of us play a unique role in this world, and it is the English major who is prepared to weave together those roles to see the image of the world as it is to bridge it into the world it could be. To know English is to confidently question, challenge, assert, and evolve.
To live within the realm of language, the imagination of connection, is to give meaning to one’s surroundings. The ideal English major is a lover of critically and creatively reading, writing, and thinking because there exist no boundaries to her interest and endeavors. With that, all doors to all pathways and walks of life remain open to the English major, willing to capitalize on the human experience and thoughtfully devote her life to the advancement of humankind. In these endeavors, she will never fail.