To be or not to be an English major?

Alas, poor Yorick
Illustration by Victoria Courtney

Consider the English major. Do you know this strange person who spends $24,500 a year to read books—things we had hoped the Internet would have killed a decade ago? She sits underneath a tree as she reads some massive tome and tosses her hair in a way she hopes looks casual. He lights up a cigarette outside Pearson House and ponders life—weak and weary. (No matter the weather, he wears long sleeves—and black.)

This creature, for whom employment is an honor he dreams not of, is the most peculiar species of student on Webster’s campus. For the past four years, I have lived among the English majors, these livers of deliberate lives, and can report better than anyone on this peculiarity of the 21st century.

The English major seeks not a job, nor financial security, but rather “the beauty in the world,” or even worse, something called “the Truth” (always with a capital “t.”) There are no internships for English majors, no tour guides, no central headquarters and no “How to Write the Next Great American Novel for Dummies” book.

The future of the English major is as grim as any Orwellian dystopia. However, the English major goes forth, undaunted. Is he mad? Doth the lady not protest enough? Why does the English major do this to himself? Because Webster is his most natural habitat, and gives him reason to exist.

Where else can the soon-to-be-aspiring-teen-sensation novelist speak openly about her ongoing struggles with character development, without the fear of numb, uncomprehending gazes from the beer-guzzling, football-watching masses? Where else can he spout his secret desire to be the next T.S. Elliot and not face ridicule or confusion from men with square jaws who wear ties to work? You know, Elliot was born in St. Louis, just like me, he thinks, and the thought gives him solace.

Webster, especially the English department, is a special place, the kind of place where people gather to complain about not being somewhere else—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—somewhere with a “scene.” That is the problem with St. Louis, she thinks. My revolutionary writing style would be appreciated if I weren’t stuck in this cultural backwater, this fly-over country. Things will be better in London, he assures himself.

 You know, Elliot was born in St. Louis, just like me, the English major thinks, and the thought gives him solace.

All English majors think they will make it—wherever “it” is. It’s not important and need not be defined, because the English major is a free spirit. And if he doesn’t “make it,” there is always teaching (teaching is never “it”). Teaching, that easy thing where you read three books and recite them for the rest of your life. Teaching, yes, my backup plan, she says to her friends and family to assure them she will not end up working at Starbucks like they all think she will. What do they all know anyway? he says. They haven’t read Ginsberg like I have.

If nothing else, the bravado of the English major is impressive. But his judgment? Hills are not white elephants, after all. He can’t see to see, unfortunately. One can’t help but wonder, if he could do it all over again (become unstuck in time, perhaps?), would the answer to the question remain unchanged. To be or not to be an English major?

Because friends (and I hope I can call you  friends at this point; you’ve read awfully far—and I pray with a smile on your face as opposed to an indignant, vein-popping scowl), this is a question that is closer to my heart than some may realize. While I have enjoyed writing this, I must make a confession, an admission, a revealing, come clean: I am an English major.


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