I just read the article above by Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. In his article, he talks about the value of studying literature and thinking critically while reading and also taking the time to read the great authors and not just the next Stephen King novel. These things I agree with. I try to read and think critically and I’m now writing these kinds of responses instead of just thinking about them. What I don’t agree with in this article are the somewhat ridiculous claims that all students should major in English and studying literature is really studying “being a human being.”
The author spends a good bit of his article explaining why English majors are vastly superior to everyone else because they are reading all the time and while they are reading, they are somehow “living more than one life” through these books. I find the hyperbole in this article somewhat insulting. I majored in Accounting and went on to become a Staff Accountant at a small CPA firm. According to the author, spending my time and money on a major I excelled at and using it to become a successful professional was a complete waste because I still don’t know how to be a human being apparently. Isn’t that what Kindergarten is for? We learn how to share, how to get along, how to separate from our primary caregiver, and how to respect authority. Isn’t that learning to be human? For that matter, our entire lives show us how to be human. We learn valuable skills that will make it possible for us to survive. We learn to walk, to talk, to feed ourselves, to drive, to socialize, to work. It would appear that the majority of people who live to adulthood already have a degree in “Being a Human Being.”
He thinks that every student no matter their skill set or ambitions in life should major in English. And what if everyone did, Mr. Edmundson? Where would you get your teeth cleaned, or buy your groceries, or get your oil changed? If everyone has their nose in a book, contemplating life and striving to find some new and better way to view the world, how will that world function? A college education is expensive and time consuming and most people only get one (if they get any at all). Most of us don’t have the luxury. We have to get in and get out with a degree and start making money to pay back those loans. And did Mr. Edmundson consider that not everyone majors in science or business just because they want to make money? Many genuinely want to improve quality of life through healthcare, research, etc.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going the other direction and bashing English majors. And studying literature is a noble pursuit. It’s one I don’t do enough of. But this article demeans all other majors and suggests that everyone without an English degree is inferior. You know, for some, studying English and reading literature really just isn’t their forte. And that’s fine. If you want to just read something fun and distract yourself (like I do most of the time), there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. You know the sayings, “it takes all kinds” and “all things in moderation”? I think they apply here. Studying and teaching English are great but so are other professions and people for that matter.