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.