For four years of your life, between the ages of roughly 18 and 22, you get asked a variation of the same question thousands of times. When you’re a senior in high school going through the college application process, the only question that is second to “where do you want to go to school?” is “what do you want to study?” When you’re finally in college, it’s almost guaranteed that meeting someone new inherently leads to you being asked, “What are you studying?” It doesn’t matter if you’re at a crazy house party or a quiet family dinner party–– the question always pops up. And as it turns out, even after you’ve graduated, that question still doesn’t fade. Of the many people I’ve met since graduating from college a few months ago, every single one of them has asked me “what did you study?”
In the four years that I’ve been telling people that I’m an English major, I’ve learned to predict their follow-up question: “So what do you want to do with that? Are you going to teach?”
After years of being asked this same patronizing question over and over again, I just feel like screaming “No, I don’t want to be a teacher! English students can do more than just teach!”
But I just smile politely and say something like, “No, I want to do something a little more creative,” and so ends that portion of the conversation. Nobody really expects to get into a heated debate about the value of an English degree when they’re just asking about your career path. But the narrow-minded stigma that an English degree carries needs to be addressed–– and how better for an English student to address it than by writing about it?
I don’t mean to disrespect teachers–– I don’t think it is a profession below any other. In fact, I believe that teachers are the moral and intellectual backbone of our society. Apart from parents, they are singlehandedly responsible for shaping the future of the world, which rests in the hands of our children. And it just so happens that for the first 18 or so years, our children spend most of their lives in school with teachers. And then, if a student is lucky enough to attend college, you can tack on another four years to that timecard. Thus, for the first two decades of a person’s life, they spend most of their time in a classroom, where a teacher is running the show. They help us to become literate innovators, problem-solvers and team players.
But teaching has a hefty occupational stigma that it forced to bear; it’s largely summed up by the phrase “Those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach.” It’s an insult to teachers everywhere, insinuating that the people who end up as teachers are those who failed to be successful in their first chosen occupation, whatever it may have been. Failed to become a professional athlete? Teach gym. Couldn’t land a job at an engineering firm? Teach science. Can’t be the next Indiana Jones? Teach history. Never managed to make it as a successful novelist? Teach English. Forget the fact that maybe some people–– many people–– chose to become an educator. They chose to have a hand in the shaping of the young minds that will determine the future of our entire planet.
Somehow, English and teaching ended up in the same deprecated wheelhouse. There seems to be some widely spread preconceived notion that English students are destined to be teachers–– that teaching is not only one of our very few options for a career path, but actually our primary option. I don’t know where this idea originated, or how long it’s been around for, but it’s time for it to be eradicated.
An English degree has about as much to do with teaching as any other degree on the planet. So why don’t business majors get asked if they want to be a professor? Because business degrees are thought of as useful in our society–– they lay a foundation for a future career in our money driven, economy crazed society.
Meanwhile, every English degree carries the weight of an offensive, groundless stigma that each and every intelligent English student must bare the brunt of: that their degree is essentially useless, and will take them nowhere in life. I’m not sure who came up with this stupidity, but they’ve obviously never heard of Jennifer Lee, Barbara Walters, Steven Spielberg, Diane Sawyer, Conan O’brien, Mitt Romney or Lena Dunham. All of these hugely successful individuals majored in English while they were in college, and went on to pursue careers that had absolutely nothing to do with teaching. You don’t need a fancy business degree to run the show–– a fancy English degree will do just fine, if not better.
One of the most important attributes that a hiring manager looks for in a job candidate is “Strong written and oral communication skills.” You’ll find that exact phrase within the bulleted list of required skills in almost any job listing. Our society functions based on the ability to communicate with one another. And what do you need to communicate? Language. Language is everything. If you can formulate a convincing argument, you can talk your way into (or out of) almost anything. Important politicians have actual speechwriters. Know why? Because nobody is going to listen to a person if they’re standing at a podium spewing complete nonsense. Poor language doesn’t command respect, it commands embarrassment. If you can’t speak or write coherently and gracefully, there’s a good chance that people will think you’re an idiot. Nobody wants to hire an idiot, and nobody wants to be led by one either.
Consider for a second that every single thing you watch on television was written out by a scriptwriter who is a master of language–– TV shows, movies, commercials, news broadcasts. Every single textbook and novel that you read in school? Someone wrote them. The content that you read on any and all websites–– that was written by a copywriter. The music you listen to and love so much? Written by a lyricist. The news you read on the subway during your daily morning commute? Written by a journalist. And don’t you dare stand up at a business presentation unless you’ve got a coherent proposal written out.
Your whole world is dominated by language. And English majors just happen to be linguistic masters.
So the next time you meet a student or recent grad who tells you that they’re an English major, do not ask them if they want to be a teacher. Maybe they want to be a writer, a book publisher, an actress, a journalist, a politician or a CEO. Don’t buy into an ignorant stigma and just assume that the primary career option for an English student is teaching. We can do absolutely anything we want with our degree–– and we’re damn proud to be English students.
And if you do happen to be one of those English students that decides to become an English professor–– allow me to be the first person to thank you. I hope you make as much of a difference in your student’s lives as my English teachers made in mine. My first grade teacher taught me how to read. My high school English teacher taught me how to understand language. My college poetry professor taught me how to feel, love and appreciate the beauty of words. My creative writing professor helped me rediscover my path as a storyteller after years of feeling lost. They shaped me into the person I am today, and I owe them absolutely everything.