Many will disagree with Mark Edmundson’s popular essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Ideal English Major.” Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that college students should choose the English major over the pecuniary rewards of degrees in econ or business.
In a weak job market, where the crushing burden of student debt makes attending college an increasingly fraught choice, it’s welcome to see somebody beating the drum for the English degree as path towards becoming an educated person.
There may, however, only be so much one can take of Edmundson’s soaring, hard-to-choke-down conclusion:
To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.
One imagines there are a few M.B.A.’s out there who vaguely resemble people (frequent evidence to the contrary).
But Edmundson’s essay remains a worthy defense of reading, study, and all-around curiosity (“Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form”) in an ever-more mercantile and results-oriented age. He understands the transformative nature of reading in its most ecstatic form:
There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.