In Defense of the English Major

Jesse Levinson, Maroon-News Staff

Economics, biology and psychology haven’t always dominated the Colgate academic scene. Step back a couple decades and the most popular major at Colgate was… English?

There is no shortage of factors to explain such a drastic shift––a shift that not only pertains to a decrease in English majors, but also a widespread decline in the commonality of picking up and reading a book.

A 50-year study performed by the Higher Education Research Institute points to the Great Recession as one relevant explanation. According to the study, the number one reason students have gone to college since 2008 has been to secure a better job, yet before that it was to learn something that interested them. The result has been a greater emphasis on majors related to business and health care as well as a rejection of the humanities.

Another factor is perhaps more obvious: the Internet. Why read a book when you can lay in bed––with the lights off and eyes half-closed––and watch Netflix? Why pickup a newspaper when you can skim through a one-page newsletter on your email?

Even more pressing is the Internet’s effect on attention span. In his novel “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” Nicholas Carr writes, “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation … My mind now expects to take in information the way the net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”

To properly read a book requires a depth of attention far deeper than what it takes to scavenge the Internet. If the Internet has had so profound an effect on the way we think in the some-20 years it has been around, imagine what our brains will look like a couple decades down the road.

There are, of course, plenty of arguments to be made on behalf of the rise of the Internet, just as there is no denying the importance of specialists in the fields of business and health care. Yet to overlook the value of studying literature is to miss out on the opportunity to attain the self-knowledge and general wisdom that the discipline brings out.

The beauty of studying English rests in the fact that it does not gear you towards any particular career. Instead, it emphasizes what a college education should emphasize: making you a well-rounded and knowledgable individual.

In his article, “The Machine Stops” the recently passed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks recounts his response to a father who bragged about the frequency with which his daughter surfed the Web.

“I asked whether she had read any of Jane Austen’s novels, or any classic novel. When he said that she hadn’t, I wondered aloud whether she would then have a solid understanding of human nature or of society.”

What’s the use of studying economics or biology or psychology if you don’t have the deep-rooted knowledge of human nature that is unique to the field of literature? A generation that attends college through the lens of finding a job sacrifices a great deal. Learning becomes a process not centered around self-growth, but rather around future career prospects.

Studying English––or, at the very least, reading a book every once in a while––is the most effective way at combatting this commercialization of education. As Carr puts it,“Readers disengage their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.”

Notice Carr’s emphasis on “deep” reading. He is not discussing the shallow, distracted reading typical of what we do when scrolling through the Internet. Instead, he emphasizes the type of reading that requires immersion––one that, if done properly, will produce a shield to the distractions of the outside world.

In a society drifting away from books, these are skills unique to English majors and they are why the discipline ought to play an important role in future generations.