“Gaining Critical Thinking Skills” Is No Defense for the English Degree

N.B. This post focuses on the value of English, or literary studies, not composition studies.  For more information on why I do not believe we should defend English by saying “it teaches writing,” see the end note.

The humanities have faced increasing scrutiny over the years as the original purpose of a liberal arts education–seeking knowledge for its own sake–has been rejected and replaced by a need to demonstrate a utilitarian value for each degree awarded.  This change was arguably initiated by the opening of universities to the masses; no longer were students primarily wealthy individuals taking time out of life to think deeply, but individuals hoping their degree would lead to a job.  Today, the skyrocketing prices of universities and the enormous debt taken on by students just to attend also means that parents and students want to be assured that the university experience is “worth it” (in other words, that it will lead to a high-paying job that can pay off the debt.)  In such a climate, English departments and their students tend to justify their existence by saying that English “teaches critical thinking” and that English students can “end up in a wide variety of jobs from business to law.”  This defense, however, ultimately weakens the case for earning an English degree.

English Is Not Unique in Teaching Critical Thinking

To demonstrate that English is a field that deserves university money and resources, proponents ought to focus on what makes literary studies unique.*  Arguing that English teaches critical thinking does not do so because every major at university ought to be learning critical thinking.  Critical thinking is, in fact, necessary for history, for religious studies, for biology, for chemistry, for computer science, and more.  If the goal is merely to teach critical thinking, a student could major in potentially any field.  English departments are, in fact, not indispensable if they are merely  doing what everyone else should be doing, too.

English Is Not Simply about Gaining Skills to Transfer to “More Useful” Contexts

The “critical thinking” argument also tends to assume that English is primarily valuable because it teaches transferable skills.  There are two problems with this.  One is that skills are not always easily transferable.  Faced with a new context and unfamiliar content, people often fail to transfer skills.  They may need more training and more practice until they can succeed in a new field.  If companies will have to retrain English majors to apply critical thinking skills to new subject areas, they may be less willing to hire an English major over someone who is already trained to think critically in that context, and who already possesses relevant content knowledge.

The second problem is that this argument assumes that English simply isn’t valuable as a field in and of itself.  It has value only insofar as it it can potentially train students to succeed in non-English fields.  While there is certainly value in not being locked into a rigid career path by an overly-focused major, it does not make much sense to defend English as a field of study by saying English students go on to work in non-related fields.  They could just as easily major in business or history or economics from the start and then go on to work in related fields.  This argument makes English look like an unnecessary middle step, a potential waste of time.

English Has Its Own Content and Its Own Inherent Value

Finally, English is not simply a vehicle to learning skills; it has its own content.  For a long time, that content has been the Western canon, the body of works generally understood to be significant in shaping Western culture and influencing later works.  In the past decades, English degrees have expanded to include more authors, more genres, and more age ranges.  But the point remains.  Students of English are supposed to be familiar with specific works.  Undergrads often take survey courses, so they have a general background in various time periods, authors, and genres.  Graduate students focus their studies, usually to a time period (and maybe genre or even author) or to a field like children’s studies.  Both undergrads and graduates will be expected by instructors not simply to be able to think critically about any old thing, but to recognize the author of an unfamiliar work; to be able to place a work in the appropriate time period or movement; to discuss the social and historical context of a work; to recognize influences; to recognize genre or form; and more.

It seems strange that English is so often denied to have real content when we consider other majors.  History students need to know what the Civil War is, when it happened, why it happened, and how it influenced later events.  Art students need to be familiar with artists like Monet or Picasso, their major works, their historical moment, their influences, and their influence.  Chemistry majors need to memorize specific reaction mechanisms, familiarize themselves with specific instruments, and even learn about important chemists in history.  No one denies that other fields have content.  Because, in reality, critical thinking is essentially impossible if a person possesses no content knowledge to think about.  And yet, few people advocate for English on the basis of its content.

But I will.  English has inherent value.  Its content has inherent value.  There is value in reading Beowulf and Austen and Shakespeare and Toni Morrison.  There is value in reading Alcott and Hurston and Whitman and Hughes.  There is value in stories and poetry and words.  Perhaps it is the type of value you either understand intuitively, or you don’t.  But it’s there.  And English departments should lay claim to it.


*This post uses “English” to refer to literary studies.  That is, readers should understand that English does not mean “composition studies” or “how to write” in the following discussion.  Combining composition studies with literary studies has been one method used by English departments to justify their existence by claiming utilitarian value, i. e. they can argue, “We don’t just sit around reading made-up stories.  We teach people to write.  They can use this skill in their future jobs!”

The argument I want to make is for the inherent value of literary studies, without the need to justify it by absorbing different fields.  Also, I don’t believe that “teaching people how to write” is a good justification for English departments, anyway, because every field writes a little bit differently and every department ought to be teaching their majors how to write effectively in their specific fields.

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30 thoughts on ““Gaining Critical Thinking Skills” Is No Defense for the English Degree

  1. Susan says:

    Yes!! Great post. Literature certainly has its own inherent value. Please pretend it doesn’t because they believe it cannot bring people $$$ immediately.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      To be fair, the average student loan debt in the U.S. last year was around $39,000. The English degree has inherent value, but students may recognize that and not want to pay that much money for it.

      Like

  2. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    Yes!!! Agreed that English has its own value and that all fields teach critical thinking.

    I thought your first part was interesting – examining the motives behind going to university will probably be helpful in deciding what to study and why a student chooses that major. I went to uni partly for job prospects, but also because I wanted some time to live in another country and that greatly influenced my choice of university (and major).

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    • Krysta says:

      I can see why students feel pressure since last year the average college debt for students was apparently around $39,000. You can recognize that English is valuable, but still wonder if it’s worth that much money! I think the real problem here is that colleges are always increasing tuition to cover administrative costs (which include administration, things like mental health services, the college video game room, the “free” iPad everyone receives, etc.). Colleges need to stop trying to provide an “experience” and get back to teaching so they can lower costs and students can major in the subject of their choice without worrying about taking on that kind of debt without an guarantee they can pay it off.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

        Yikes! That’s very expensive! That’s definitely going to influence how people look at things.

        Like

  3. Jheelam says:

    “Also, I don’t believe that “teaching people how to write” is a good justification”- Couldn’t agree more. In India, studying English= taken for granted that you write well.

    I’m from Economics background who once upon a time, wished to work as copy writer. I’ve been denied to send my CV, even when the JDs had not mentioned having an “English” degree was mandatory for the role. *Rant over* :D. Very pertinent post.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, the job market is so competitive! In the U.S., English departments suggest graduates can go on to jobs in journalism, communications, business, social media marketing, publishing, etc. But English graduates are competing with people who degrees specifically in journalism, communications, business, social media marketing, and publishing. The person who seems to need less training in that field has the competitive edge.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    I certainly think that English has an inherent value! What I find is that there’s a huge problem with people who don’t understand that English has transferable skills and I think the response that it teaches a range of skills is often a defence for people when coming up against the “oh you’re an English major, you’re going to be unemployed after uni” brigade (I think this is usually worse across the pond, because there’s a different system here when it comes to degrees that people don’t understand- eg if you want to be a journalist here, you typically do an English/history/humanities degree here) Sorry, I went off topic and said the exact opposite of what this post was about, but I’ve just had these arguments a lot being a former English lit major 😉

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That’s interesting. If you want to be a journalist here, you should definitely enroll in a journalism program and not an English one because, it turns out, the New York Times doesn’t really care if you know about John Milton or can analyze a sonnet. They want to see you’ve written news pieces, not literature papers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah I know- it’s one of those things that people don’t realise about the difference between American unis and English unis and it can be frustrating (it’s not just for journalism, this is similar for publishing, teaching, marketing etc). You can do journalism degrees here- but the thing is on job requirements for a huge range of places it’ll say an undergrad humanities degree. Not to get into too much detail, but basically Russell Group unis, which is the equivalent of Ivy League, don’t offer things like journalism- they like to stay old school (which I happen to agree with)- which makes a difference to hiring practices.

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          Interesting! Our liberal arts schools (as opposed to large research universities) actually also tend not to offer “career” degrees. So my college did not have journalism, publishing, business, marketing, education, etc. as possible fields of studies because they’re not pure liberal arts enough. Sounds good in theory until you realize a lot of jobs value those career-oriented degree, and now you have to go to graduate school to get a master’s degree in journalism or education or something you could have gotten a bachelor’s degree in at a different school…

          Liked by 1 person

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Yeah it’s slightly different here. I think the main difference is that since it’s the big research unis doing this, the market follows suit. Since the biggest unis don’t offer career specific degrees, they aren’t looking for those sorts of degrees. (Funnily enough, I have known people with journalism degrees from the UK who couldn’t get a job here go across the pond and get great jobs- so there’s always that option 😉 )

            Like

    • Krysta says:

      I certainly don’t disagree that English has transferable skills! 😀 I just think every major does, so why not focus on what makes English unique?

      However, the U.S. job market is getting increasingly specialized and it’s really annoying and, I think, detrimental. It basically means an eighteen-year-old who didn’t choose the right major might be locked out of their career path of choice unless they go back to school. But what eighteen-year-old knows what their life will be like in five, ten years? None!

      There are degrees for almost everything now, all so employers don’t have to bother training anyone. And I think sometimes career services and ever professors in universities aren’t really familiar with the changing job landscape, to be honest. A lot of the people I’ve worked with or spoken to still give advice back from when they were on the job market. So, in the U.S., English departments suggest graduates can go on to jobs in journalism, communications, business, social media marketing, publishing, etc. But English graduates are competing with people who hold degrees in journalism, communications, business, social media marketing, and publishing. Job listings may or may not specify that English is a possible alternative. But the person who has the specialized degree and will need less training is more likely to get the job. Not least because a lot of employers apparently now weed out resumes through keywords. If your resume doesn’t say “journalism degree,” it might get tossed before a live person ever sees it.

      Of course, none of that means that the English degree isn’t valuable. But when the average debt in the U.S. for college is now around $39,000, and students look at their job prospects, I totally understand why they might be worried about majoring in English.

      Liked by 2 people

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah that’s totally fair- I just got sidetracked cos I’ve had to defend the subject so often 😉

        Yeah that is a real shame- I have noticed the difference and I can imagine that would be a lot more stressful to have to do a specialise so young (although you’re sort of specialising younger in the UK, by ruling some things out even with your A Levels in school, but not so much- more narrowing it down bit by bit). Wow yeah that’s got to be a lot more stressful- I mean, of course there is competition, but it’s slightly different if you’re an English Lit major here. (I know anecdotally of a lot of people in the opposite position- struggling to get anywhere with their too-specific degree).

        Yeesh- that doesn’t help as well. I’m also coming at this from someone a bit older (by a year lol) that missed the £50,000 debt- which would make anyone more stressed about the job market

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I get that. And I don’t understand it because the economy in the U.S. is such that I know people from all sorts of fields who aren’t working in their major or are under-employed. Having a STEM degree won’t necessarily guarantee a great job when competition is fierce and everyone is majoring in STEM.

          Definitely! Degrees can be waaay too specific. I’ve noticed increasingly specific majors here for jobs that shouldn’t even require a college degree. People could just be trained on the job! But at this rate we’ll be seeing degrees in ice cream shops with certificates offered in milk shakes and sundaes. For real. Colleges think they’re making their graduates more competitive but they are both locking their students into too-specific degrees and creating a situation where people now have to go into school (and major debt) in fields they never needed a degree in before. Not that they care if they get tuition money from it.

          Liked by 2 people

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Yeah that’s very true about STEM as well- I have friends who studied in that area who have ended up doing very different things.

            Ach yes- the sad indictment of this society means the ice cream degree doesn’t sound too wacky (they have apprenticeships now to work in retail here :/ ) That’s very true unfortunately.

            Like

  5. Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

    Good post! I especially agree with your first point regarding critical thinking as critical thinking is a much needed skills in all courses and generally – life! Or you’d think, I’m amazed at how many don’t appear to apply it but that’s a completely separate topic 😉

    It’s funny because when I was making the choice of which degree to choose I was torn between English Literature because of my love of books and Psychology because of my love of knowing what makes people tick (though you could say English Lit always does this, just in a different way).

    I chose Psychology because when I was 17 and making this choice I genuinely believed that Psychology would help me get a job easier. To be fair… it’s actually been very helpful in my chosen career but that’s literally because I *chose* something that has a strong basis in Psychology. Would an English Lit degree have helped? I’ll never know.

    I love English though and part of me has always still wanted to do my English Lit, never say never 😉

    Like

      • Krysta says:

        I think auditing courses could also be a possibility. There’s a lot to be said for self-education. People do check out Great Courses videos or read literary criticism and such. But it’s a totally different experience to be in a room full of people passionately discussing literature, while guided by an expert in the field! Book lovers love to talk about books, after all, not just learn about them!

        Like

  6. Mattie @ Living Mattie says:

    This is a well-written discussion 🙂 I feel like this is an issue across most degree subjects. Like you said, so many people are getting degrees nowadays and a LOT of them aren’t necessarily going into the field that their degree is in. Because of this, I think all degrees are feeling the pressure of needing to provide “transferable skills”. But like you said, critical thinking is something that all degrees should provide.

    “Perhaps it is the type of value you either understand intuitively, or you don’t.” I think this is SO true. Some people don’t understand the inherent value of learning English, over say a science or maths discipline.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of advice over the years about transferable skills. The difficulty is that some employers now apparently use software to weed out resumes that lack specific keywords. So if they’re asking for a certain degree not listed, the resume might be tossed before an actual human gets to read it and think about whether the candidate could transfer skills.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Grab the Lapels says:

    This post makes my brain hurt in a good way. I come from both sides of the table. I was a student for a very long time, and then I was a professor for 10 years. I was a professor during the recession in the US. That was awful. Trying to explain to students why an English degree is a good idea during a recession is awful. The answer always became critical thinking skills or better writer or transferable skills. The last department I worked in was a bit different. The chair of the department pitched the English degree as important because every job has a storytelling element. For example, if you are a mechanic and someone brings in the car and they don’t know much about cars, they’ll tell you some wacky story about what happened that led them to think the car is broken. Thus, you need to be a good listener and be able to analyze stories.

    I completely agree that the English degree is under attack because people tend to see it as some sort of book club that they are paying for. Why not just go read those books on your own time, they ask. But, on the other hand, what do English Majors do when they get out of college and need to get a job? they’re likely going to take those skills and transfer them to a different field, right? I completely agree that education should be gained for its own sake, but I’m also a realist who lived through a recession. What do these people do to feed themselves? What does an English degree do, even if you have the best teachers who are pedagogically-motivated and interested in literature for its own value?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Well, that’s the dilemma. English has inherent value, but is an English degree worth $39,000 (about the average cost of student debt last year)? Especially if English grads will have difficulty finding a job? I hate to be that person, but I wouldn’t necessarily advise someone to take on that kind of debt without having some confidence they’d get a good-paying job in the end. Which is impossible to know when you’re eighteen and trying to imagine a future four or five years away.

      But the thing is, this is solvable. College tuition is way too high and it’s all because of administrative costs. Yet tiny cuts made each year typically eat into departmental budgets, not into administrative costs. Colleges could lower tuition if they wanted and make the English degree or any degree more affordable. But they don’t because they’re competing with each other to provide an “experience” instead of an education. Get rid of a bunch of the extras like the game room and the “free” iPads and all that, and costs could go down. But no one wants to go to a school where there’s little to do besides study and attend a few low-budget clubs. So we’re all stuck with insanely high tuition rates.

      However, I think a crisis is coming and we’re going to have to eventually rethink what the university is/does. At what point does the cost become so unbearable that it just doesn’t work anymore? And then what do we decide the university is for? Is it to provide entertainment every night along with freebies all the time? Or is it a place to learn?

      I’m not trying to say all extras are bad, of course. I definitely support having clubs and outside speakers and things that do add to the educational experience. It’s just that people always say college tuition is high because of the tenured professors. But you and I both know that’s a joke because departments are built on the backs of underpaid and underappreciated adjuncts. It’s easy to say, “Take money away from those rich professors” and much harder to say, “We might have to give up some of our own perks.” But the reality is, the perks were never free. They came out of tuition.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. petersironwood says:

    Thanks! It is rather sad that humanity seems to have *largely* (though not fully) accepted the idea that life is not valuable in itself but only as a means to some end — which end is coincidentally, in essence and effect, to make a few very rich and powerful people a little richer and more powerful. I am now doing a series on tools of thought which you might enjoy. https://petersironwood.com

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! Sometimes I think we need to stop needing everything to be “useful.” We even feel the need to justify things like nature and relaxation these days by saying they’re good for mental health, for instance. But do I really need a useful reason to have some green space in my city? What if nature just makes me happy?

      Like

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