Why I Study English: Lucia Alden

When I got to university as a first year, I had no idea what major I was going to choose or what job I was preparing for. I had one goal: to become more intelligent, well-rounded, and lucie-alden-1mentally agile. Not only does this make you a better thinker, but it makes you a finer person, a more valuable citizen, and a potential agent of change in a world that desperately needs big picture, interdisciplinary brainpower. This may sound overblown, but it is not. The three-dimensional, diverse education the humanities offer is indispensable and must not be overlooked. At a time when people approach college more like trade school, where the only goal is to find a job, it can be difficult to heed this advice. Yet, viewing university as mere job training is a flawed approach and, frankly, a waste of one’s tuition dollars. The point of a university education is not to learn one specific trade, but to round out your intellect and be a well-read, well-versed individual who is employable because you are smart, flexible, and able to think across disciplines. As an English Literature and Economics major, this is exactly what my Arts degrees have given me.

Why do I study English literature, you ask? I was seduced by reading, but what began as a love affair with devouring books became permanent when I discovered how much there was to learn in literature. I have always loved factual knowledge and the memorization of hard facts- things that allowed me to use flashcards and treat studying like a game. People often assume that there are no such facts in English and that literature does not allow the same memorization other disciplines require. This is entirely false. Having spent hours and countless packs of flashcards memorizing rhetorical devices like chiasmus, polysyndeton, and zeugma, literary devices such as consonance, synecdoche, and litotes, and play plots and sonnet sequence structures, I can assure you that to claim there is no hard knowledge in literature is as ignorant as it is ridiculous. My absolute favorite part of English, though, is not the act of memorizing, but the force given to you by the ability to apply that immense cache of knowledge. When wielding my intense literary understanding, for a short time I feel invincible. Being able to recognize the rhetorical and logical structures Iago uses to manipulate Othello or understand allusions to the past in present works is invaluable. It plays a small part in telling us why words and stories affect us the way they do and, to me, that is infinitely useful.

Words are powerful- something politicians knew then and know now only too well. Though Shakespeare’s plebeians in Julius Caesar may not see Marc Antony’s subtle yet brilliant manipulation of public opinion, the savvy reader understands that Antony’s influence lies in his rhetoric, as he repeats “And Brutus is an honorable man” with waning conviction and increasing irony (3.2.95). The same powerful rhetoric resonated in Martin Luther King’s speeches on civil rights and is heard in Obama’s impassioned speeches today. Rhetoric is words and words are power. So, yes, while I grew up your typical bookworm, it is the richness that literature’s vast factual knowledge brings to reading that I find so intoxicating. There is as much to learn in English as there is in finance or engineering and I encourage anyone who says otherwise to attempt to scan a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

That being said, I am also an economics major, so I have an appreciation for mathematical modelling and analysis as well. In fact, I truly believe that my two majors benefit from a mutually nurturing relationship by which my understanding of literature is aided by economics and my aptitude in economics is amplified by my abilities in literature. The strongest proof of this is a semester in which I was taking an English course on the Elizabethan book trade and an economics course on the history of economic thought. At times, my economics course was more literary than my English class and my English course engaged more fully with economic reasoning than my economics class. I was prepared for both interdisciplinary situations. Sadly, however, my fellow economic classmates were not. Up until the early 20th century, the discipline of economics did not exist as we know it today. Instead, it was called political economy and articles were written by parish priests, satirists, political philosophers, and essayists. As a result, their economic theories relied heavily on literary devices like metaphor, imagery, and allegory. I will never forget spending a 3-hour class discussing what Karl Marx meant by comparing a worker’s capacity for labor to a phantom because the students could not grasp Marx’ metaphor. Though my fellow economists were lost in the imaginative and literary style of pre-20th century theorists, my training in literature allowed me to cut through the literary devices and reach the core economic message. My understanding of English informed my study of economics in a powerful, unforeseeable, and highly beneficial way and that is exactly what the humanities do.

A humanities degree opens doors for people not by training individuals precisely how to turn the knob, but by teaching them to think, enabling them to open every door, not just those with knobs. The humanities teach a man to fish, making him self-sufficient and highly capable. My mom, a big fan of gin rummy, always told me to “grab all the cards on the table,” speaking metaphorically of course. In gin, though picking up all of the discarded cards initially gives you a bigger hand, burdening you temporarily, it ultimately allows you to win by giving you more possibilities, more combinations, and significantly more points. This is exactly what a humanities degree does: though it may, at first, seem like a more cumbersome, less direct path to victory, you ultimately emerge with more options, greater flexibility, and potentially more success than your peers. Studying English has created opportunities for me in journalism, publishing, theater and literary criticism, speechwriting, costume design, editing, and so many more interesting trades and potential professions. My economics degree does not have that kind of flexibility because economics teaches you how to interpret facts and figures without the same training in critical thinking that is at the core of English literature. It is not difficult to analyze an economic model without history or context, but it is nearly impossible to get a rich reading of Milton without understanding the political history, religion, and classical foundations at play in his texts. Because literature has taught me to instinctively think across disciplines, I consider my English degree more valuable, in many ways, than my B.A. in economics, a view that would shock everyone’s favorite intensely logical and meddling family member (because let’s be honest, we all have those aunts and uncles who ask where we’ll be working next year and why we didn’t major in business).

It’s true, the job market is scary and I understand that, but because of the adaptability of my humanities degree, I am confident that I will find a job. I don’t plan on being hired because I am trained solely in journalism or finance or biology, but because I can think well and with agility. I am employable because I am smart and intelligent people are just plain useful. That’s the simple truth. To all past, present, and future graduates, I implore you to do what you love, think outside the box, clear your own path, and if the door’s locked, climb out the window.