In Defense of the English Major in Philadelphia Colleges and beyond


Being an opinion writer, I get critical email and comments from readers on a consistent basis. I expect that. What I didn’t expect was a small tidbit Doesn't this cartoon explain everything?
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Being an opinion writer, I get critical email and comments from readers on a consistent basis. I expect that. What I didn’t expect was a small tidbit Doesn't this cartoon explain everything? Photo: this email from someone named Billy, who’d apparently Googled me. In response to my op/ed on the “Climate Gate” phony, mass-produced right wing McOutrage, he sent this to my inbox:

“You are a hysterical ENGLISH MAJOR, what can you possible be an expert ont other than BS. F&#K YOU and the rest of the progressive A#% h%$ls. You lying sack of S&*%T.”

Telling me to go “F” myself? I understand.

Being called a liar, a sack of “S”? I’ve been called worse.

But please, making fun of someone you disagree with by putting down all English majors? That’s harsh.

English majors make up the backbone of the college-educated country – and I’m not just talking about the unemployed. We’re writers, editors, teachers, lawyers, and, really, whatever we want to be. The English major, while a mockery of science and business students alike, is at least as important for the development of young minds in and coming out of academia.

“I think that Literature, and the arts in general, provide us with a more ethereal or spiritual link to existence,” says Jeff Markovitz, Community College of Philadelphia  English professor, via email. “Progress and commerce are practical and valuable to the human race, without a doubt, but the conceptualized esoteric value of art in our lives is gravely discounted, often considered a pretentious and non-lucrative part of our world.”

Unlike many majors in U.S. universities today, the English major is one that still fits with John Henry Newman’s  The Idea Of A University – it leaves open its focus to several pathways. Topics of study include essay writing, journalism, communications and time period-based literature (novular and poetry). What lots of people don’t understand about the English major (and what I hadn’t thought about before I dove in, seven years ago) is that the texts involved in English and literature programs force the student to become an expert on both European and American history.

For instance, take English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. In 1798, he and Samuel Coleridge  basically created the Romantic period  in If Wordsworth were alive today, his expression right here would say it all. Photo: English literature after they jointly wrote Lyrical Ballads. This age came out of the Victorian age and represented, in poetic terms, the beginnings of secularism in popular European culture. Romantics’ goals included using common off-the-cuff vernacular while also focusing on man’s relationship to the natural world, or, as Coleridge put in On Poets of Art, “the mediatress between, and reconciler of nature and man,” something that hadn’t been done before.

Romanticism gained in popularity and formed a more cohesive criticism through the 19th century as the industrial revolution made way in the western world. The poetry produced during the Victorian and Romantic eras exist not just as art, but contexts of the art.

Romanticism is just a single example. Many time periods are shaped by the literature within. One of my personal favorite books is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and in the tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Ellis seeks to describe the 80s as a greedy, selfish period in American life by writing the narrative of a man who sees – and, manages to both reject and embrace – life this way. Ellis creates Bateman as a lifestyle-obsessed investment banker who spends an equal amount of time giving the reader factoids on Whitney Houston  and Ralph Lauren  he or she won’t even use – or, after a while, read – as he does progressing the story. And, in a search for and rejection of his American dream, Bateman kills people.

The book exists as a period comedy, mocking the New York City elitist money culture through Bateman’s antics and the surrounding characters’ indifference to his crimes. American Psycho turned Ellis into a household name and his fictionalized yuppie into a symbol of the decade.

Stephanie Scordia, also a Community College of Philadelphia English professor, writes by email: “Looking at those individuals throughout history, regardless of profession, who brought about change in their time, the one trait they had in common was that they were effective communicators.” The intentions of a writer – good ones, at least – is to communicate a time, place, and thing (be it a character or idea) the reader cares about, though not necessarily agrees with. This is what Ellis does well, and it’s what all writers dream of doing for a living – though it’s easier said than done, as English majors are infamous for getting minimum wage jobs out of college as they seek to write their novel, which is often published solely on the former student’s laptop.

“The essential problem,” says Markovitz, “is that English degrees don’t often lead to high-paying jobs, or jobs at all. Look at the market for English teachers, and you’ll see this point blank. There’s always being a famous novelist, but we all know how that goes.”

Famous author or not, businesses are relying more on those with written communication skills these days and English degrees are on the highway to hell with the times. Writing skills never go out of style. They do, however, progress.

The rise of sites like Facebook and Twitter  have led to the creation of new PR careers which include blogging, Twittering, and enhancing Google searches through keyword writing, referred to in Internet new speak as SEO (search engine optimization). These careers are ever-evolving and writing programs, like Medill’s journalism school  in Chicago, are changing with it. The school’s website promises to teach bachelor’s degree students written media as it pertains to getting published in print, online, television, on iPods, and cell phones.

That being said, college English programs create professionals with the ability to use the power of their words, which, if used correctly, can change the world.

“Words are power,” Scordia says, “and the ability to manipulate words is the ability to sway hearts and minds. Without training in how to compose their own texts and, perhaps more importantly, to critically read the texts of others, future generations of Americans will not be adequately prepared to face the challenges of a global economy.”

Randy LoBasso is a freelance writer and editor from Philadelphia, PA.
He writes politics and music for

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  1. OMG – I agree with Randy

    Many folks do not understand the connection between command of the language and the ability to think. English majors have a vast command of both the written and spoken word – historical, contextual and stylistic. They know how to think. They know how to speak and write – thoughtfully. That’s important.

  2. I am glad you made it all
    I am glad you made it all clear, as a non-native English speaker my ideas about English majors were a quite blurred. I am still having ielts speaking classes so there are plenty yet to learn about the language and culture.


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