My View: What will you do with an English degree? Plenty
He's now Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In grad school? He studied literature -- W. B. Yeats, to be exact.
January 4th, 2013
12:41 PM ET

My View: What will you do with an English degree? Plenty

Courtesy Michael BérubéBy Michael Bérubé, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, and the 2012 president of the Modern Language Association.

(CNN) - Almost every college student who considers majoring in English - or French, or philosophy, or art history - inevitably hears the question: "What in the world are you going to do with that?" The question can come from worried parents, perplexed relatives, or derisive, incredulous peers, but it always implies that degrees in the humanities are “boutique” degrees, nice ornaments that serve no practical purpose in the real world. After all, who needs another 50-page honors project on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire?

Well, strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, a 50-page honors project on a 19th century French poet might be just the thing you want to see from one of your job applicants. Not because you’re going to ask him or her to interpret any poetry on the job, but because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration - and to write a persuasive account of what it all means. And you may find that the humanities major with extensive college experience in dealing with complex material handles the challenge better - more comprehensively, more imaginatively - than the business or finance major who assumed that her degree was all she needed to earn a place in your company.

We have plenty of anecdotal evidence for the value of the humanities. Over 25 years of teaching, I’ve had many students tell me - sometimes five, 10, 20 years after they graduated - that their English major gave them the intellectual skills they needed in their careers, while introducing them to some of the most challenging and delightful works ever written in our language. At the Modern Language Association, any one of our almost 30,000 members can say something similar. That’s why we’re such passionate advocates of study in the humanities.

And as Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University, has pointed out, we can point to success stories like Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health. Each of them earned a Master’s degree in English. Dempsey studied Joseph Conrad and William Butler Yeats; Varmus concentrated on Anglo-Saxon literature. In other words, they immersed themselves in dealing with complex material that requires intense concentration, and they honed their intellectual skills in so doing. It turns out that those skills are useful - and transferable - anywhere there is thinking to be done.

But for the first time, we also have statistical evidence for the value of the humanities. In 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” What most people took away from that book (no doubt partly because of the title) was that college students are goofing off: They spend far more time on social activities than on homework. The results show up on a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which basically asks students to deal with complex material and write a persuasive account of it. “At least 45% of students in our sample,” Arum and Roksa write, “did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in CLA performance during the first two years of college.”

That’s not a happy result by any measure - and it makes college sound like a waste of time and money. But when you break down the numbers, a funny thing happens: Students showed improvement in “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” largely to the degree that their courses required them to read at least 40 pages a week and write at least 20 pages in a semester. The more reading and writing they did - serious reading, analytical writing - the more they learned. A remarkable finding!

All right, it’s not really a remarkable finding. It’s precisely what you would expect - except that it’s precisely what everyone manages to forget every time they ask a humanities major, "What in the world are you going to do with that?" In Arum’s and Roksa’s findings, humanities majors scored quite well; business majors did not.

Too many students (and their parents) think of college as the place that will grant them the degree they need to work at X job. The problem is, X job might not exist 10 or 20 years from now. Or X job might be transformed into something else, something that requires critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.

When that happens, and it happens all the time, humanities majors find that their degrees were good investments after all - and that they are employable anywhere in the economy where there is thinking to be done.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Michael Bérubé.

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Filed under: College • Humanities • Jobs • Voices
soundoff (269 Responses)
  1. Clint

    "the business or finance major who assumed that her degree was all she needed to earn a place in your company"

    Way to make an assumption about an assumption. Enjoy your fancy vocabulary and pretentiousness...I'll take a degree with a higher probability of helping me start a career.

    January 7, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
  2. brian

    Martin Dempsey and Harold Varmus can more likely trace their ultimate successful in their respective fields more due to the fact that Dempsey chose to join the Army and Varmus went to medical school.

    January 7, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  3. Deborah Steinberg

    I have BA in Creative Writing and an MA in English Literature. I speak and read a second language fluently and am an accomplished singer and pianist. I struggle to support myself financially and I don't see that changing any time soon.

    I would not go back and change a single thing about my education. It has made me a thoughtful, caring, compassionate, critical thinker who isn't content with a job where I simply do what I'm told. It has made me want to do something to help the world, not just to help myself. It has opened up an entire world of ideas and art, without which life, for me, wouldn't be worth living. It has led to some of the best experiences of my life.

    I chose this life knowing that I would never make a lot of money, nor be regarded highly by those who measure value in terms of money. And this life that I've chosen confirms, over and over, my belief that life's value does not lie in productivity or accomplishments, but in the richness of our experiences and the meaning we create from those experiences. I believe our entire human community would be richer if we decided to value the humanities – our human culture – as one of our greatest collective accomplishments: our attempt at explaining and understanding who we are and why we're here. Our art and philosophy are lanterns that illuminate the way through this difficult life, and I would not want to go it without them.

    January 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • Deborah Steinberg

      Oops – apologies for the double post.

      January 7, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • Khadija

      Then you ought to know the difference between am and I am..

      January 8, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  4. Deborah Steinberg

    I have BA in Creative Writing and an MA in English Literature. I speak and read a second language fluently and am an accomplished singer and pianist. I struggle to support myself financially and I don't see that changing any time soon.

    I would not go back and change a single thing about my education. It has made me a thoughtful, caring, compassionate, critical thinker who isn't content with a job where I simply do what I'm told. It has made me want to do something to help the world, not just to help myself. It has opened up an entire world of ideas and art, without which life, for me, wouldn't be worth living. It has led to some of the best experiences of my life.

    I chose this life knowing that I would never make a lot of money, nor be regarded highly by those who measure value in terms of money. And this life that I've chosen confirms, over and over, my belief that life's value does not lie in productivity or accomplishments, but in the richness of our experiences and the meaning we create from those experiences. I believe our entire human community would be richer if we decided to value the humanities – our human culture – as one of our greatest collective accomplishments: our attempt at explaining and understanding who we are and why we're here. Our art and philosophy are lanterns that illuminate the way through this difficult life, and I would not want to go it without them.

    January 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  5. lilyq

    "Over 25 years of teaching, I’ve had many students tell me – "

    Yup. There's what you can do with that expensive English degree....teach the same thing to another generation of "thinkers".

    January 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Tom

      so youre implying that youre a "doer" not a mere "thinker." I'd hazard a guess that what you "do" doesnt require much "thought."

      January 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  6. Theogene Jones

    I have heard of schools where one can tailor their degree to their interests. I would create a focus on "sycophancy" if it were possible. For freshmen, it would be a requirement to take: "Yessir, Yessir, I agree completely boss." For 2d and 3rd year students, "If the man wants a ham sandwich, give the man a ham sandwich." Yes men always succeed with less labor and stress.

    January 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  7. gerard wolke

    "What are you going to do with that Philosophy degree?" What I did with my Philosophy degree was to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force, flew 205 combat missions in Vietnam, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, left active duty for the reserves and eventually became the Deputy Commander for a squadron of C-130 tactical airlift unit with over 1,000 people, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel (insuring a lifetime of income and health care). While in the reserves I started and ran 4 businesses, 2 of which became very profitable and enabled me to retire to my beautiful 53 acre equestrian ranch at age 50. How did a Philosophy degree help me do all this? taught me how to think outside the box.

    January 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  8. creedwait

    All good points. But the dream and the reality do not always correlate. Most English majors that I know are working retail.

    January 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Brenda

      Funny. Exactly no English majors I know are "working retail." On the contrary, they hold a diverse array of interesting and, quite often, lucrative positions.

      January 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
      • siposter

        This is ridiculous. If with all our fancy liberal arts degrees we are still equating success with a high income, we've learned nothing. Did it never occur to anyone on this board that perhaps folks "working retail" (as if this were something to be ashamed of) are also involved in something else that might change the world? 'Course not. In your universe, earners of a minimum wage are failures and unworthy of being taken seriously.

        January 8, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Creedence

      Clearly, your personal anecdote defines reality...

      January 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  9. Bill

    A very interesting column. I think it highlights how over-valued technical degrees are. I have an Engineering Degree myself, but was made to appreciate the value that humanities can provide. There is a certain creativity in thought that you just don't get if you study pure science or engineering. In engineering, your thinking process is often limted to design conventions or even state or federal regulations. Thinking outside the box can be difficult, because there is not much opportunity for it.

    January 7, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • Theogene Jones

      LOLz. When you say "think outside the box," I immediately think of Taco Bell. People with more degrees will always defend the position that more degrees are better. If I could recommend something to young people to go into it would be either banking or congress. Bankers use your money and pay themselves. They might loan some of your money back to you if they can make a few dollars, and they will certainly pool your money with that of your friends so they can loan more of your money to you. What a great deal! Congress is a good profession as well, with the immediate full pension and benefits for life. No work experience required.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  10. Theogene Jones

    Words, shmerds. I woulda greed wid you some years ago, but dem people started making words have new meaning. Take for example: marriage. New meaning. When people control the meaning of words you are not free. Hawhawhaw. I do not hire people with college in my small business.

    January 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • Trish

      Your loss!

      January 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  11. Dan Richards

    If business degrees teach just as much critical thinking and are progressive for society, then why can't our politicians do anything?

    January 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Bill

      First, most of them are lawyers, second they are motiviated by political considerations. They will do what it takes to maximize the number of votes in their district. I don't care what kind of degree a politician has, they are always going to bend to the will of politics.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Sarah Caldwell

      Why not? Because business is not politics. In a business, the boss makes decisions, generally toward a single end: HIGHER PROFITS. America does not operate the same way. It has a number of goals: healthy, growing economy and people; peace and stability among its inhabitants; opportunity for its citizens to achieve happiness; defense of our borders, and, over the last 60 years, influence among other countries. Some of these goals have been and are mutually contradictory. The late Molly Ivins wrote, "The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion."

      Business people seldom relish confusion.

      January 8, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  12. dragonwife

    And all of this may be for naught, since the masses seem to be incapable of writing anything with correct spelling or grammar anymore, let alone forming intelligent conclusions or coming up with original thoughts. I've never been to college (long story), but I am appalled at the everyday mistakes I see in people's writing. The sad thing is that no one seems to care. "It doesn't matter as long as you get your point across." Guess we'll have to "loose" our intolerance and say "your" right...

    January 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  13. palintwit

    Here are the top 5 American universities in the order of their ranking:
    1. Harvard
    2. Princeton
    3. Sarah Palin University
    4. Yale
    5. Columbia

    OK. I'm thinking the same thing as you are. How did Yale get on that list?

    January 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  14. walso

    The problem is not that degrees in humanities are worthless, the world cannot all be engineers and computer scientists. However, I believe the stigma with humanities degrees exists because there is a divergence between how many people pursue degrees in humanities and how many the marketplace needs and can support. Look at any college campus and you'll see something like 40%-50% of students enrolled in humanities degrees. The marketplace and academia only has a need for something like the top 1% of those 40%-50%. As long as you are the cream of the crop, you will find employment. Everyone else will more than likely return to Mom and Dad's basement. We can't all be Proust experts and expect to earn a living.

    January 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  15. Fred

    What do you do with a philosophy major?
    Think deep thoughts on unemployment.

    From a liberal arts major's perspective: don't bother getting a degree in the liberal arts. With the free and fast exchange of information these days, you are not dependent on the university system to get education in these areas. You can do it on your own for much less. In math and sciences, however, you need the university system for that level of education.

    January 7, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Goofus Thomas

      The problem with that conclusion is that one needs to be motivated in order to learn anything, be it a liberal art or science. If you have the motivation to learn, you can learn anything on your own. I would like to hear why you think that one needs a university level education in order to learn a science as opposed to an art.

      January 7, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
      • yourlesbianfriend

        It is difficult to learn critical thinking and creativity skills on one's own. That really comes from experience and discussion and cooperation. The whole point of thinking critically is to challenge your own initial assumptions and delve deeper into something. That's where the humanities come into play. It's not that there aren't areas of science that require critical thinking, but in subjects which require interpretation rather than just memorization and practice, it is a higher priority. I challenge the idea that people can learn anything on their own with motivation. That may be true of information to some extent, but the university system provides resources and a community in which to explore alternative methods of thinking, which is what gives people the skills Michael Berube is talking about.

        January 8, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  16. James

    Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates all dropped out of college. Should kids follow them as well? Just because there are a few people who have been successful with worthless degrees doesn't make the degrees worth something.

    Every time you see an article about unemployment and youth on CNN, it has kids who have these degrees. They work at starbucks and all went to college and feel that they should have a real job! What did they always go to college for? English or Philosophy or some other dumb thing..... If you are going to put money into school get a worthwhile education and make money! Be a doctor or an Engineer.

    January 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  17. Rundvelt

    > Not because you’re going to ask him or her to interpret any poetry on the job, but because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration – and to write a persuasive account of what it all means.

    Yeah, I know that if I was looking for a job applicant, I'd totally weigh out the ability to understatnd poetry in terms of complexity then someone who can weigh out mathimatical equaitons.

    English/phil/soci majors end up with less jobs because even at their best, they're still behind science/engineering/math. Things that actually require a sharp and developed mind.

    "I can build models on your windmill power generation so that you can predict energy gained by weather patterns in this area."


    "I can totally tell you what Robert Frost meant when he said two road diverged in a yellow wood."

    Looks like hte road less traveled means you're not as employable.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Dave

      you spelled mathematical wrong. But I agree.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:53 am |
      • Keith T. Maxwell

        Lol..... Not an English major.

        January 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
      • Virginia

        Rundveldt spelled a lot of words wrong and got a lot of grammar wrong: two road diverged, equaitions, htem understatnd, "English majors end up with less jobs..."

        I wouldn't hire him iinto a position that requires contact with customers as he would embarrass the company.

        January 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
      • mc

        "than" not "then." If you think this country needs more of the same buisness and money-grubbing shallow buffons, you've got 'em. "Look around. The bodies are everywhere. You have to step over the bodies." "Getting and spending...."

        January 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
      • Mark

        Having a MS in both CS and EE and a BS in EE I can say that my ability to correctly spell words in a rant has had no effect on my life. My amazing degrees however, have earned me 45+ job offers from the worlds leading Engineering Firms, Banks, and various Fortune 500s. It must be embarrassing to know that 23 year old are graduating fresh out of college and making more then seasoned veterans of Liberal Art (That is if they are even employed). I'll laugh myself all the way to my BMW Thank You.

        PS They say money can't buy happiness? I sure as hell have never seen anyone frown driving an M3 🙂

        January 8, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • Sandra

        Also spelled "equations" wrong, and does not know that those squiggly red lines under some words mean that they are misspelled, and have meant that for over 10 years, without having to go into the browser preferences ("huh?") to set up.

        January 8, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • Alicia

      You're not thinking about the broader world. Of course I want someone with a technical/science/math background if they need to be building things or working with complex physical designs. But who would you pick to speak directly with clients, or create a marketing brochure, or create the copy for a website? You need someone who is a natural writer and has spent time honing that skill. I don't know very many science or math graduates who naturally excel in these areas (it happens, just not often).

      Furthermore, if everyone starts studying the same thing, we'll just be restructuring the unemployment issue. Look at what happened to Lawyers. That used to be a sure path to a lucrative career.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  18. tropical farmer

    i'd much rather see someone with a solid understanding of the physical world, with a degree in say physics, chemistry, electrical or mechanical engineering, and a minor in english, than a plain vanilla, and technologically ignorant, english major, in charge of billions of dollars of complex equipment.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  19. NM2000

    This whole debate is silly and pointless.

    Several studies show that around 70% of people wind up working in fields not directly related to their degree after a few years anyway. And while it is pretty conclusive that STEM field degrees make more on average, short and long term, than their humanities cousins, other studies have shown that people with humanities degrees ranks their own happiness higher long term meaning if you define success by pure dollars STEM may be the way to go, but if you define it by a happy quality of life, humanities may be a better fit for you.

    For me, you can achieve success with any degree if you are competent, willing to work to do so, and find passion in what you do.

    My wife's degrees are in neuroscience and evolutionary biology and she works as a self-taught computer programer. I have an English Lit degree and have done everything from content editing science textbooks to feature design and requirements gathering for a major educational website.

    The secret is less in the degree itself and more in figuring out what underlying skills that degree hones in you. I was never going to get a job in Victorian literature, but the English degree honed my research and analysis skills, my written communication skills, and my ability to use story to elaborate and convey what I'm talking about–all of which had quite direct applications in marketing and requirements gathering/writing for consumer websites. My wife found a passion and knack for programming because of the logical and empirical problem solving she learned in the science fields. We've both translated the underlying skill sets into careers in other fields.

    Too many kids today go into college thinking that the degree will define them–that they'll get this degree and that will lead to that job, etc–but the more profound truth is that, if you want to succeed, learn to define the degree. Major in what you are passionate about, but then learn how to tease the skills of that passion out and apply them in other fields. If you can do that, then you'll succeed regardless of what piece of paper was handed to you on stage (and the longer you are in the workforce, the more true this becomes; degrees become footnotes after a few years of real-world, practical experiences).

    January 7, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  20. rigoletto

    Kingdoms have been won or lost with words. Words are very powerful. They are the best way for humans to exchange ideas and information. Having a good command of the language is essential to communication and education. As a graduate with an MA in English Lit – I can attest that studying literature is actually a study of the intellectual history of humanity. Done right, it results in an ability to read people and understand their character in a very short time. In my case, an English degree helped me to find a career in the entertainment industry where everything we see at the movies or on TV comes from a written script – and a strong knowledge of story structure is indispensable in this field. An English major is not for everyone but it is especially helpful for those who will need a powerful command of written material and the meaning of words – especially in the practice of law and the political field.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Diana

      Very well said; As the holder of and English degree myself I agree entirely that the power of words is very potent; Indeed kingdoms have been won or lost through the persuasive power of the spoken and written word.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • AaaaCccc

      It's sad the military understands the power of understanding history, Literature, etc. but our schools do not. I have been filling in the gaps in my child's education. I am frustrated the history of reform, revolution, social change through authors, books, and great orators is not taught.

      January 8, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  21. Rob

    If the subject material was technical, the analysis and report you speak of would not be able to be completed without expert assistance from subject matter experts, e.g. an engineer or other technically trained person. This argument is specious.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Michelle

      Oh, untrue, grasshopper. As an English major, I once (back in the day-way before Windows and PCs) worked as a writer in a bank writing job procedures manuals for people who worked in all positions in the bank and computer applications for programmers and customers. I can tell you, I knew absolutely NOTHING about those computer applications, but I am one heck of an interviewer and writer. I also verified what I wrote with the programmers to make sure the information was corrected before I published. That is one of the excellent talents one learns as a liberal arts major–good research and writing skills. You don't necessarily have to be a biologist to write a great article on elephants, but you do have to be a good writer.

      January 8, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Michelle

      ...which I guess is actually what you have said as well...I apologize. It is very late at night in South Korea! Just to expound a bit, however. Many technical people are not terribly good communicators and tend to become highly frustrated when they have to communicate on a "lower" level than the one they are one. English majors can write to fit the audience. We can do that dirty communications job for them while they go about their engineering and computing, pocket protectors firmly in place.

      January 8, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  22. sparky

    "because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration"

    So, partial differential equations aren't complex? Determining probabilities doesn't require intense concentration?

    Engineers are graded on not just dealing with these things, but being able to come up with THE right answer.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Liutgard

      But sometimes there *is* no 'right' answer. Sometimes the information is nuanced, and a decision is only reached through a thicket of possibilities that have to be weighed against each other. Sometimes you have to entertain the thought that there is more than one good answer. You don't get that from a differential equation.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:42 am |
      • bdm000

        Umm...First of all, if that is the type of problem (or issue), then you don't write a differential equation for it. However statistical analysis will give you the most probable answer and a measure of the uncertainty in that answer :-D.

        January 7, 2013 at 11:52 am |
      • Chase


        "But sometimes there *is* no 'right' answer. Sometimes the information is nuanced, and a decision is only reached through a thicket of possibilities that have to be weighed against each other. Sometimes you have to entertain the thought that there is more than one good answer. You don't get that from a differential equation."

        You, obviously, have never seen real differential equations before. Sometimes in mathematics, just as in life, there is no right answer. Sometimes you even have to define and create your own mathematical universe. Especially in non-linear differential equations. You can sometimes make a accurate linear model, or piece-wise linear model, but it is not the correct or real answer. Math is simply the fundamental biases for how the universe works and interacts with itself. And just like the universe, there can be more than one reality.

        January 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
      • AaaaCccc

        A real understanding of math is as rare as a real understanding of the purpose of a humanities education.

        January 8, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  23. J100409

    Humanities majors may be good on the job, but no one wants to hire us in the first place.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  24. Small Town Girl

    I earned a BA in History and Journalism from a liberal arts university in the 1990s – I have never been without a job and I make good money working for a large company as a writer. From my experience, you get back what you are willing to put into something – whether it’s a degree or a job. If you want to be a success in life and work reasonably hard at it, you will be. My degree prepared me to be a critical thinker and a problem solver. I wouldn't change anything about what I studied or where I went to college.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  25. Rob

    I remember very few of my college professors from 29 years ago, but I remember MAJ (now Gen) Dempsey like it was yesterday. He taught me literature (much Shakespeare) and poetry at West Point. He was dynamic, and made it a great class. What a great leader he was back then. I'm not surprised he is now the CJCS.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  26. Turgot

    I see much discussion here about the value of critical thinking skills and whether these are best imparted by humanities or science fields. It is interesting to note that, ultimately, critical thinking, or logic, is considered a branch of philosophy, and has been for nearly 3,000 years . . . and philosophy is in turn a branch of the humanities!

    Ethics is also a branch of philosophy, and, thus, part of the humanities, and one increasingly hears about the growing emphasis on ethics in business (in this post-ENRON world) and in science (think cloning and brain-stem research). While I dislike the idea of ethics being taught by business and science professors - the blind leading the blind? I know this is not quite fair, but. . . . - instead of philosophy professors, this infusion of the humanities into business and science is laudable.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • Ellen

      I have been a practicing attorney for 25 years. I began college as a Computer Science major, but quickly realized that my true calling was English. But what to do with that? Be a writer, a teacher, or news reporter. I ended up with law, because the analytical ability to read literary works and follow themes, etc., translates very well to law. Also, the development of clear, concise, and persuasive writing cannot be underestimated for law. I have made my living as a writer practicing law. I added Philosophy and Political Science as minors to create my own Pre-Law curriculum. This combination was perfect, with the Philosophy adding logic and ethics as noted by this writer.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  27. Elizabeth West

    "Well, strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers..."

    Yeah, good luck trying to find one of those. 😛

    January 7, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  28. Jeff

    Because my degree in chemical engineering has given me no critical thinking or creativity skills?

    January 7, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Josh


      January 7, 2013 at 11:17 am |
      • sparky

        Jeff probably has or will have a nicer job than many liberal arts majors. How's that for a little critical thinking successfully demonstrated?

        January 7, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Gary

      Of course it has, Jeff. But compared to an English Degree you are probably underarmed in the B.S. department. BS is an amazingly useful tool in the business world!

      January 7, 2013 at 11:19 am |
      • Jesse

        You don't have to B.S. anyone if you have a B.S. – you have the tools to accurately interpret and communicate the facts or results of a given solution to a problem.

        January 7, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Bill

      It's not that. I too have a BS in Chemical Engineering and my school made us all take about four semesters worth of humanities classes. However, what I know about engineering and other technical professions is that Engineers sometimes get too bogged down in numbers. We solve a problem by crunching the numbers. However, not every problem can be reduced to a mathematical equation. Sometimes nuance is required and that's something that's not taught very well in Engineering schools.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  29. Josh

    Perhaps the author should learn some research skills. Then he could quote actual statistics of how humanities majors fair in the workforce over the long-term. Then he could understand the error in his argument or could actually support his argument if he found it correct.

    He has only shown that he hasn't learned the required skills to develop a persuasive argument. Step 1 get your facts straight. Step 2 write analytically.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Dan Richards

      Or is it that you only value one type of persuasion?

      Also, he did use stats on testing; he just didn't delve into workplace stats as he is limited in space.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  30. David

    This is not going to change any employers mind. Someone less creative with a more "desirable" degree will be highered. Move along people.

    January 7, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • Adge


      January 7, 2013 at 11:22 am |
      • pastafaria

        I think by "highered" he meant elevated. Personally I would have gone with "embiggened," although both terms are perfectly cromulent.

        January 7, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • pegsploration

      My English degrees have served me well in my professional endeavors. I have been tasked with explaining complex data and systems. Of course, it took a bit of study, just as someone with a science degree may have to bone up on English to produce a polished product (for instance, using apostrophes for possessives in order to get "highered).

      January 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  31. Turgot

    I have a BA in English and an MA and PhD in History, and I work for a corporation well-known worldwide - and I've been here nearly 20 years, having been hired straight out of college. In fact, my employer helped me go back to college to obtain my PhD. I always praise those who major in something allegedly "impractical." And I always say, if you are really good at something - whether writing history, teaching English, doing archaeology, acting, singing, etc. - and pursue it passionately, you will succeed. You just have to keep trying. (Is it any different in the business world?)

    January 7, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Elizabeth West

      Twenty years ago, that may have been true. Things have changed, sweetie.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:14 am |
      • AaaaCccc

        It has changed due to the debt load. I could take more risks, lower paying jobs for experience because in my day, education was affordable. One could actually work and pay for a huge part of their expenses while in school.

        January 8, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  32. Dan Richards

    I think we can all agree that the best option for a modern student is to double-major in a science/social science and English. That would be ideal.

    In other news, the comments section is reinforcing his call for better reading comprehension. Berube was given 1000 words to justify the value of skills that have been valued by all great civilizations in history to narrow-minded STEM ways of thinking. Generalizations and limitations of greater arguments apply here.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • possum

      I agree completely.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  33. possum

    I am a science major (BS, MS, PhD) and a part-time university instructor/adjunct professor for more than 15 yrs (have had a real day job outside academe for >40 yrs). Some of the smartest people I've known have been English majors and most, if not all, the really brilliant people I've known and worked with are excellent at English. Big difference between educated, smart and brilliant. Terms are not interchangeable. The ability to communicate well can make an intelligent person look brilliant. If one cannot communicate, intellect is useless as it is limited in its ability to get out.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  34. Theogene Jones

    Hawhawhaw. I dont needs no English to make money. I hurt my ankles in the Army playing softball. Now, with my disabled veteran status my small business get all the work I can handle from the Government. Just got me a boat and XBOX for my kids. It good. Our system work good. The only great degree these day is the NFL or NBA degree. It would make for good reality show: Millionaires who can't read. LOLz. If all that classroom time was good at all, wouldn't someone have been able to cure canker?

    January 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  35. lydia61

    I am a "foreigner" with an undergraduate degree in English and a M.S. in Psychology. I have never been unemployed for longer than 2 weeks. I have never been underemployed. When I wanted to be on the fast track I got on without problems. Now in my 50s I don't care about such things anymore but continue to do well.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  36. M.E.

    One or two may crawl up and do something impressive with an English degree, but the vast majority just end up being coffee shop froth slaves. Compared to the options and future that come with a STEM degree, humanities degrees are worthless. What would you rather be doing for the human race, analyzing a business report or putting the next mission on Mars?

    January 7, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • possum

      Somebody has the write the project to put the mission on Mars – plans/protocols/proposals – in such a fashion that it is understandable by others – funders, workers, etc. That is where English comes in.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • Turgot

      >What would you rather be doing for the human race,
      >analyzing a business report or putting the next mission on Mars?

      Sounds more like an argument against majoring in business than against majoring in the Humanities. Moreover, where do you think technical writers come from? Many of them come from English departments, which generally offer technical writing courses.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • jeffrey

      Not every science or math major will work on a mission to Mars. Besides, science fiction authors are the ones who inspire those missions. People like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. The world would be a very boring and unimaginative place if the humanities did not exist.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:13 am |
      • Me

        Of course, Clarke was a physics major and Bradbury never went to college, claiming "you can't learn to write in college." Asimov, of course, was a biochemist. Heinlein was a mechanical engineer.

        But go ahead and major in English if you think it will help your ability to write SF.

        January 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
      • Turgot

        Frank Herbert of "Dune" fame was a journalist and met his wife in a creative writing class; Philip K. Dick of "Blade Runner" (actually "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") did not graduate from college, but, while in college, took philosophy courses that informed his creative writing.

        January 7, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • jeffrey

      What if you were writing the business report to go to Mars?

      January 7, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • Howard

      Or writing the next episode of Star Trek so all those STEM nerds can rush to midnight showings to give you enough money to live in penthouses the rest of your dies sipping $1000-a-bottle champagne out of the belly buttons of models...

      January 7, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  37. Alex

    You kidding me? In today's materialistic world, humanitarians aren't worth the paper their papers are printed on!!!

    January 7, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • DanC

      You just proved my point. Thank you.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  38. DanC

    I agree entirely with the author. Nothing opens and enlarges a mind, and a heart, more than being exposed to, immersed in, and actively engaged with great literature. The more the better. I am a psychologist in clinical practice. Again and again I see that those people who have had extensive exposure to literature are more flexible in mind, and more open in their heart of hearts, than those who lack such exposure. Activating the imagination is the key. Great literature does that better than anything else. Cultures develop themselves with great works of literature, not with spreadsheets, business plans, mission statements, statistical analysis, biological engineering, information technology, physics, or mathematics. The same goes for individuals. These are all fine things, but they are neither first nor last.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • Marie Lujanac

      Beautifully said! So true!

      January 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Rundvelt

      ROFL, nice work of fiction there.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • Rundvelt

      > Cultures develop themselves with great works of literature, not with spreadsheets, business plans, mission statements, statistical analysis, biological engineering, information technology, physics, or mathematics.

      Clearly this culture hasn't benefited and been shaped by computer science and electrical engineering. ROFL.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  39. BJM

    I have a degree in English Literature and have never had any problems getting jobs with it. I have even started a lucrative side business helping to write papers for others who are struggling in their college courses.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • Howard

      I can only wonder how the professors of those customers of yours view your efforts. Apparently, courses in English don't include any lectures on ethics and integrity.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:33 am |
      • Pat

        It is not any more unethical to help students write papers than it is to tutor students in math. Writing papers for them would not be OK as would doing their math homework.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:42 am |
      • Elizabeth West

        BJM said HELPING them write papers, not writing their papers for them. There is a big difference.

        January 7, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  40. Chris Magee

    I was an English and history double major in college and graduated with honors. While I was able to get a job as a copy editor eventually, 10 years after graduation I still make less money than many students in other majors straight out of college. While I do feel that my major helped develop me personally, I wish for employment purposes that I had majored in computer science or some other science instead. People always make the argument that a humanities major prepares you for anything, but when you go to apply for that job, employers are so flooded with resumes that you will find it hard to be considered. In the U.S. we tell our children they can do whatever they want, so they go out and major in these esoteric humanities fields, and now employers can't find anyone with the skills they need because all the jobs are technical and science-based.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • Elizabeth West

      Yeah, I know the feeling. I have serious issues with math–if I didn't, I would have majored in science or computers instead of English and criminology. But there is still a need for clear, concise communication in all fields. So tech writing, here I come.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  41. P Willis

    A business degree is the only degree that is truly worthless. Most other degrees develop critical thinking skills and make you a smarter and better person.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • rlj

      Not really worthless – they exist to limit the intelligence and creativity of other majors – sadly necessary to a degree to get things organized enough to be practical.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Howard

      My business degrees (bachelors and masters) has made it possible for me to earn a decent 6 figure income and forced me to deal with the vexing problem of politely fending off people trying to entice me to leave my employer to come work for them.

      Creative thinking is an indicator of one's personality, not one's education.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:23 am |
      • The Real Tom Paine

        Yes, but creativity needs to be developed, otherwise it is useless, and a business or engineering degree does not teach those skills. Businesses look for people who can solve problems and think in a lateral as well as a linear fashion, something that a business degree does not teach.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:42 am |
      • P Willis

        @Real – would have to disagree with Tom Paine here about one thing. Engineers and scientists are the most creative people there are. Arts majors are often misinformed about what creativity is (hint – it is not just about making a new painting or song or sculpture). Engineering requires creativity.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
      • Ryan

        You do realize that engineers create things from scratch right? How the hell that isn't creative to you is beyond me...

        January 7, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • P Willis

      @Howard, a business degree is worthless not in the sense that you couldn't find a job or make money with it. (A sign of a business major is that they are unable to think that anything worthwhile could possibly exist outside of making money.) It is worthless in terms of what you learn from it. A business major's job can be done by many other people who don't have a business degree. If fact, millions of such people exist. But a business major couldn't do anyone else's job.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • Howard

      Man, nothing irks me more than a recent MBA (or someone in the process of getting one). Think they know everything and they go on and on about whatever textbook they happen to be reading that semester. New jargon from each chapter every other week.
      In meeting with MBA: "Blah blah blah power law graph blah blah"
      Me: "ooooohhhh, guess you just got to the long tail marketing book, huh?"

      What's more, doesn't matter what reality is, they LOVE droning on and on about business theory. And they do so in the same jargon-driven plati.tudes their textbook taught them to say. They can't distill that information into actual practice, just go around talking about the information itself.

      MBAs are great for making connections with other MBAs so that you can hire one another in the future, but other than that, if there was ever a more useless degree I haven't found it.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:11 am |

    From where do novels and screen plays and magazines originate?
    Yes, Virginia, we do need English Majors - just not so many!

    January 7, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  43. Time on Earth

    I saw it slowly increase from the 70's- that the college Humanities were worthless on the job market. I regret zilch
    I went that route and from 30 years later, I feel no one can accurately measure the value of the experience and tools I came away with. I got over envying the fat cats in their fancy cars and Rolex watches a long time ago. It's been a wonderful life "examined" and worth living.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:03 am |
  44. Brent

    So you can point to some success stories, hip hip horray.

    It is garbage like this that has our country failing miserably. Look at some of the most forward leaning areas of work and you will find them populated by immigrants who know the value of a real degree. I am sorry but an English degree is darn well near worthless for enterring the workforce, unless you are doing editting/copy writing. We need MORE students focused on economics, engineering, mathmatics, computer programming, management information systems, medical research, etc. You want to talk about preparing students, these are degrees that prepare students and make our country better.

    January 7, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Bill

      I have an English degree, with a minor in philosophy. While in college, I dabbled in computers and acquired the skills necessary to go into technology after graduation. Working in a $12B company now, I work with a lot of smart people with computer science degrees, but many of them lack the skills to organize and communicate their thoughts well. Frankly, I've been promoted past a lot of them because philosophy taught me how to think, and English taught me how to communicate those thoughts concisely. Technology is easy to pick up; you just immerse yourself in it. Good communication skills take training.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:06 am |
      • CW

        I second that. Getting my BA in Philosophy alone taught me to think and analyze critically; that has definitely benefited my career in public health / emergency management (a career that was not at all on my radar while in college, either).

        January 7, 2013 at 10:14 am |
      • UP Kansas

        Your logic is flawed here. One might say that good communication skills are something you just "immerse" yourself in as well. I was in the military for seven years and this is something they pound into individuals. They truly immerse them in it. I now work for a tech company and also learned a lot without being formally educated on the subject. Neither of these areas were things I went to school for but were things that I have picked up throughout my life. If someone wants to study the arts, that is their choice, but don't be upset when they choose a business or science major over an english major in this economy. It is an employer's market and they can be picky.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:15 am |
      • Tee Miller

        Amen, amen to this. I was an English major/philosophy minor. During my working life, I was in market research and technology - did just fine!

        January 7, 2013 at 10:19 am |
      • Doug Lynn

        Bill, I think you are 100% correct. People skills are ultimately the most important. Lots of people that have below average technical skills end up as the boss because they have strong communication skills and their lack of technical skills make them easy to replace at the technical level. My experience has been that strong technical skills get you a job, but strong people skills get you promotions and a career.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • applestothewall

      Whoa now.

      Every company that includes the type of jobs you are mentioning also needs good reading and writing skills. Someone has to be able to explain the products. Someone has to write manuals for technology. There has to be a PR department, and good advertising requires good writing. Technology changes so rapidly that everything you learn in your first couple years of a tech degree will be obsolete by the time you graduate. Humanities degrees don't just teach students information–they teach students how to examine situations and learn quickly. The humanities teach us how to learn throughout our lives. Humanities degrees will never be outdated because those of us who have them can adapt to changes.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:08 am |
      • vbscript2

        Sorry, but your claim that everything you learn in the first couple of years of a technical degree will be obsolete is simply not true in most cases. A computer science (or other engineering) degree teaches you theory. While you might not be using the same specific technologies 4 years later when you enter the workforce, you will be using the same concepts. Learning a new programming language or API is easy once you understand the concepts. That is one of the major things that separates someone with a computer science degree from someone with an MIS/CIS degree. The CompSci major is going to have much, much more depth in understanding computational theory and is thus almost always going to be a better developer, regardless of what technologies you give them to deal with and they will be able to learn and underestand new technologies faster because they understand how they are designed. While that might not be necessary for line-of-business applications, in-depth knowledge of computational theory is irreplaceable for anything more complicated.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • Jim

      Brent, you lack the exact skills for critical thinking and intellectual comprehension this blog wishes to help entice and excite in others. I am an accountant, and all the worse for it. I can tell you the opinions above stated are indeed correct, and I am genuinely engaged by the works of James Joyce and Aristotle because reading these texts do teach the ability to interpret complex issues and think outside the box.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • rlj

      I think you need depth, intelligence and critical thinking ability to get an English degree from a really good demanding program (more so than some other humanities) – that's what helps get English majors ahead in most cases rather than the content of what you learn.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • East of Eden

      With that being so, our nation needs better math/science teacher in the classroom. I'm a wiz at History and English, it comes easy to me. Math and Science do not so I have to work 200 times harder to get the same grade I would in other classes. In my experience, many math/science teachers and professors think their knowledge will fly into your head out of their mouths. It doesn't work that way–I've had great success with teachers/professors that are not easily frustrated and break lessons down through practical means.

      January 7, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  45. Skip Dupont

    I graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy with a BS in History. You might say I had the best of both worlds. While I was getting my degree in a humanities major, I was required to take higher level math, science and engineering courses. While i don't use the history a great deal in my current job, I am the person others look to to help them edit their various analyses. I guess what my takeaway is that you can keep the BA, it's a BS that really rounds you out.

    January 7, 2013 at 9:43 am |
  46. JPoet

    As long a the other 99% don't expect a job in a field they are not qualified for. Only a small % of arts majors I ever met fall into these categories of top notch people. Most work in bars and never heard of Wallace Stevens, and oh yeah "I read that in college, have no idea what it's about or why it's good, I just remember reading it in college". No most English majors are not at the level ths guys says therefore be clear, you probably won't get a job, not even teaching. At least with a skill you can be mediocre and work.

    January 7, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • Pat

      It may be that you meet very few successful people and a lot of people who work at bars. This may slant your outlook.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  47. Jay

    Well we al know why there is so many people correcting grammar online, because English majors cant find jobs.

    January 7, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • kristinakaye

      Great English!!!

      January 7, 2013 at 9:50 am |
      • digitalclips

        I think he was being deliberate there 🙂

        January 7, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  48. Joseph Shaw

    I think perhaps the author of this article places too much emphasis on the English Major as some kind of utilitarian necessity for working in a complex job. It may be one reason for a persons success, but the not the entire reason (see Martin Dempsey's other academic achievements here There are better arguments for majoring in English than the argument presented here.

    January 7, 2013 at 9:33 am |
  49. Lee

    I graduated from CSU in92 with a BA in History. I loved the work and the subject. But because of my conservative politics no school or university would hire me. No company sees liberal arts as an asset. I took jobs whos education requirment was high school grad. Sorry for the downer but if you take a liberal arts degree do not mention you are not a liberal. No conservatives need apply.

    January 7, 2013 at 9:14 am |
    • CJ

      I'm sorry, but I've never been asked about my politics while job-hunting. Why would that even come up? If it's something you're bringing up in interviews, that might be the reason why you're having trouble finidng a job–not because the employers are anti-conservative, but because it's an odd thing to bring up. It would be like discussing your religion. Some subjects are taboo for work and job interviews.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:42 am |
      • Boston Mary

        Perhaps it is just the "times." BUT....every job I have applied for has somehow "worked" that party affiliation subject into the interview.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:15 am |
      • Jack

        It's more of an issue if an applicant is seeking a job in academia. I've heard of several instances where prospective employers will ask about the applicant's political views.

        January 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Billcody

      You have a BA in History and expected colleges/universities to hire you? Doing what?
      It has nothing to do with your political leanings, it's because you don't have the education required to work at a college.
      If you want to settle for a high school job, so be it. If you want more out of life, figure out what your marketable skills are and match them up against careers in your area.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Pat

      What work did you love? What kind of job in a school or university were you qualified for? I seriously doubt that at the low level job you would have applied for they would have cared about your politics. Perhaps, you used this as an excuse as for why you couldn't get a job and still are.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:53 am |
      • J

        Any good adviser will advise his students that a history or English degree is very limited without study at the graduate level.

        January 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  50. Drew

    "Too many students (and their parents) think of college as the place that will grant them the degree they need to work at X job. The problem is, X job might not exist 10 or 20 years from now. Or X job might be transformed into something else, something that requires critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills."

    In today's economy, at least at the entry-level stage, most employers aren't going to want to hire people who have an unrelated degree. Why would you hire an English Major for a job that requires mathematical skills? You wouldn't. This is common sense; it's a timeless thing. This has nothing to do with whether or not a job will exist in 10 or 20 years... No one can tell the future.

    Jobs in Material Science may soon disappear and become replaced by jobs in Nanotechnology, in which you'd still rather hire a Chemical Engineering Major over a Humanities Major.

    IMO, the solution to this whole thing is to require college students to finish both an Engineering/Science and a Humanities cirriculum in order to obtain a college degree; I'm sure it'd truly worth something if that were the case.

    January 7, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Nathan

      Except not everyone wants to be an engineer.

      True, someone engineering a nanotechnology machine would prefer a chemical engineer to a humanities major to build it, but what about to design the marketing campaign to sell it? They are much more prone to hire an English major over an electrical engineer.

      My English degree landed me, most unexpectedly, in Marketing at one point and it was a wonderful, and successful fit. I now use my degree to oversee and manage three teams of engineers as a product owner who meets with our Sales force and the public to gather, define, scope, prioritize, and write up the new feature requests to tell those engineers what to build.

      Kids going into English degrees need to go in with their eyes open and realistic expectations about the types of jobs they'll be qualified for coming out, but if it is their passion there's no good reason to entirely warn someone off getting an English degree so long as they know it's benefits and drawbacks.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:22 am |
      • ThomasTesla

        Ok, good thing that you brought this up. Now, I am an engineer who is trying to get in to the Product Management role for a year now, essentially a marketing position in a aerospace company. Let me tell you something; our product manager with English degree knows how to write really well but does not know how to define the problem. For an example if we were to invent cars, he would go out to the customer and cook it up as “customer needs faster horses” the real problem statement should be “the fastest way to get from one point to another”. I am not saying that an English degree is not valuable, but it is NOT ALWAYS the best fit. Although person may be able to get the job done but that is about it. Also, an engineer can pick up lot of skills such as how to analyze complex open ended subjective scenarios, but an English major might not be able to understand all the technological possibilities out there when he or she is gathering, defining, prioritizing, and TELLING those engineers what to build. It is this really simplistic view of everything that haunts the possibility of innovation but oh well..

        January 7, 2013 at 9:57 am |
      • Nathan

        I could as easily say that engineers may write the requirement better from a technical POV, but are generally abysmal at talking to the customers about what their needs are (and I'm sure you would agree that a good number of engineers aren't exactly people persons).

        In this case, neither degree comes out of school ready for that job. I certainly wasn't and I learned many of my current skills in the actual workforce. It sounds like your PM has a training issue, not a degree one.

        The truth about the workforce is that unless you are doing EXACTLY what your degree was, MOST degrees are "not always" the best fit. Maybe 10% of the people I know work in the field their degree is actually in, in the capacity they actually studied.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:47 am |
      • vbscript2

        Thomas is right. English majors (or business majors, for that matter) are usually woefully inadequate managers in an engineering setting. Effective communication between the engineering and marketing (and other customer-facing) departments is definitely important in helping to define product requirements, but no one who does not have an engineering background should be managing engineers. It is vitally important to good product development for the people making the product management decisions to understand how products are designed, not merely the requirements. One of my requirements when I was looking for a permanent job during my senior year was that it had a be organization where the engineering management is done by engineers, not by business majors (or English majors.) At the company I work for now, the engineering management consists of engineers all the way up to the GM. Even if they might be from other engineering disciplines and, thus, may not understand the specific technical intricacies of what each individual engineer is working on, they do understand a lot more about how the products work and how they should be designed (and why we make the design decisions that we do) than the people in marketing.

        It is important to have people with good communication and customer skills in marketing and it is important that those people have input at the requirements definition stage of product development, but they should never, ever be actually managing the engineers unless they have actual engineering training/experience.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Frank_Too

      Presentation is everything! Every important project I got approval for in business was due to persuasive written presentations of my research & analysis. Your project can have the greatest merit and your research and analysis impeccable, but if the proposal and executive summary are not superbly and convincingly written, your proposal will not get due consideration. Remember: The purpose of college is not to get a job; it is to get an education! My major was Psychology and had a very successful career in banking. I would, and have hired English and History majors. It is much easier to teach someone banking and finance, than to teach them critical thinking and written expression of complex issues.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:56 am |
  51. Mcengineer

    I am an engineer married to an English major. I can understand the perspective that the author is trying to convey regarding the robust analysis skills and sense of aesthetics that a humanities degree demands; however, there are cultural problems within the humanities departments that are just as much a liability to students as what the author mentions above. My wife, who was raised with conservative values was asked to put that all aside to parrot back her professors' liberal world view. Parents are afraid that their presumably well-adjusted children will come from summer break as fully-committed radical feminist, Marxist/atheist foot soldiers ready to storm the next G8 summit. Fix that perception, and you might see a change in humanities majors' employment outlook.

    January 7, 2013 at 6:32 am |
    • AMR

      I received a double BA in political science and journalism, and my professors, while mostly liberal, were always accepting of other views, and encouraged students to share them in class. It is unfortunate that some academic departments are not the same way.

      January 7, 2013 at 8:30 am |
      • Billcody

        "I received a double BA in political science and journalism, and my professors, while mostly liberal, were always accepting of other views, and encouraged students to share them in class. It is unfortunate that some academic departments are not the same way."
        wow, you just gave the definition of liberal. A true liberal is accepting of other views as most college professors are. A conservative cares only about their view which doesn't make for a good instructor (or politician).

        January 7, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Nathan

      Again, I wonder where some of these posters went to school. I always got high marks for challenging my professor's views so long as my analysis was based in what was being studied and not per-concieved bias. I went to school in the south and had both very liberal and surprisingly conservative professors, but I cannot remember a single one ever rewarding me for merely parroting back what they wanted to hear over thoughtful, well-supported analysis, even if that analysis differed from their own.
      In fact, I was once even accused of being a teacher's pet by a friend (who did try to parrot back just to get good grades) because I "could get away with anything" since I wrote what I wanted and got better grades. I merely replied that perhaps the professor already knew what he told us so saying it back to him wasn't very insightful, but providing a more complex or differing view and strongly anchoring why you took that view within the context of the actual material proved more interesting and challenging to him.

      Anyone who points to liberal professors as a problem just had bad professors, liberal or otherwise. All the best professors I ever had loved being challenged because that was when the student was trying. They just demanded the challenge have merit and context in the material and not simply because of one's pre-existing background conditioning or world-view.

      January 7, 2013 at 8:46 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      More proof that engineers ain't all that. Lose the "liberal" BS, Chucky, and serious people might take you seriously.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • UP Kansas

      Our founding fathers were very big on studying the arts and classical literature. However, they did this leisurely and on their own time. Getting a degree should be based on needs and fine arts should be part of those studies. However, if you want to write a 50 page paper on a classical piece of literature, do it on your own time and save some money. My wife and I pick two classics every year to read and discuss together. Your college education should not be the end of your learning, it should arm you with the tools to learn for life.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Pat

      Perhaps, your wife was just using that as excuse for getting bad grades. Most professors are quite happy to have an intelligent student espouse different views.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  52. David Tagliaferri

    While it may be true that studying English or the fine arts does increase ones reasoning ability, you can make that argument for most any course of study. It is a generic argument that would work for any major. SO wouldn't it be better to major in a very generic natural science field, for instance Chemistry, where you will still have an applicant with "extensive college experience in dealing with complex material", but also one with much more practical knowledge and job prospects.

    January 7, 2013 at 4:52 am |
    • DOE

      While sciences do encourage critical thinking, they tend to be more focused on their own type of critical thinking. Humanities, especially English, requires a more adaptable level of critical thinking and analysis, as well as writing/communication skills, than most other majors, which is why Law schools and Medical schools show a strong preference for those with an English background.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:28 am |
      • Bill

        DOE, you're spot on. While few would contend that English is the only way to develop effective thinking skills, it is certainly one of the more adaptive ways. It's not so clinical, and a not-so-clinical approach is very helpful when dealing with the personalities that make up corporations. Further, philosophy (another humanity that some find useless) teaches cognitive thinking, formal and informal fallacies, and even to some extent argumentation and debate. These are all extremely useful for as long as we work with other people. Yes, we need science majors and lots of them. But anyone who thinks that studying effective communication and humanities is a waste of time is sorely mistaken.

        January 7, 2013 at 10:21 am |
      • Jesse

        Law schools show a higher preference for those with English (and political science, philosophy, history, and psychology, etc.) because their number one goal is to increase their ranking. Rankings of law schools are heavily based on the quality of the incoming class. However, the quality of the incoming class is based entirely on two factors – GPA, and LSAT score. Law schools show a preference for those with Humanities degrees because it is far easier to achieve a high GPA in those fields, as they are both heavily populated by those who end up as baristas and who spend more time goofing off than studying (as the article above mentions), and deal with far less difficult course material. The LSAT portion of the ranking, which was intended to help balance out those differences in areas of studies by providing an even playing field, is now taught in courses as a game and can be beaten. So the school is left to decide between two students who scored equally well on the LSAT but who had different GPAs. In reality, the Electrical Engineer with a 3.6 probably has significantly higher technical, problem solving, and complex logic skills than a French Literature major with a 3.9, but the law school, due to the nature of the system, has to put rankings as its #1 priority. Higher rankings lead to better employment placement which leads to donors which lead to better students through scholarships. Those better students lead to better rankings.

        January 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Yeah, let's all follow the same path. The more stupid people talk (that's you(, the less faith I have in humanity.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  53. Cacalips

    Martin Dempsy PLS. Y U do DIS?

    January 7, 2013 at 4:29 am |
  54. Nathan

    I have an English degree and it has been wonderful for my career.

    I'll admit, it was hard to get a foot in the door. There was a lot of prejudice against the idea of a humanities degree, but once I got in somewhere my ability to communicate clearly; to research, analyze, and synthesize information and re-present it in new forms; my ability to present ideas and concepts as story to make them more memorable and compelling; and a host of other skills derived as a result of my degree have been infinitely beneficial and led to a rapid rise in position and salary spanning multiple departments and roles in my company. The secret is not the degree itself, but the skills cultivated in earning the degree. Those are what you hone and develop and apply in the real world. No company cares how well you can describe the intricacies or social connections of Paradise Lost, but that you can read a previously unfamiliar doc.ument and tease intricacies and social connections out of it is a useful skill to have.

    Besides after a few years in the work force, no one cares where you went to school or what you majored in, only what you can do and have done in the actual business world.

    January 6, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • howellb1

      "No company cares how well you can describe the intricacies or social connections of Paradise Lost, but that you can read a previously unfamiliar doc.ument and tease intricacies and social connections out of it is a useful skill to have."


      January 7, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  55. ronjayaz

    As a retired “English major” at 81, I think I can offer some POV that might enlighten future English majors. First & foremost, I must thank the British for forcing English upon the Irish population for over 300 years of linguistical subjugation, Gaelic being forbidden. It must be recognized as the inglorious error of the British since it gave the Irish the “money language of the world” and made making it in America so much easier. In the fact, the Irish turned around and won for the Republic of Ireland four Nobel Prizes for Literature. Talk about turning a pig’s ear into a silk purse! So much for the perils of subjugation. I actually grew up an anglophile. I thought the bloody bickering was counter-productive. All those dead bodies for what? I would ask the Pals and the Israelis the same thing.

    Still the money language of the world, I learned to go around the world teaching English as a second language and taking the breaks that comes with the territory and simply starting again whenever the urge came upon me to work. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn it until 1966 and didn’t take to it until 1976. But the other 16 years was riding on the gravy train. I never knew as an immigrant kid, growing up in NYC what having English as your native language meant. God save the Queen! And the King, whoever may rule Great Britain!

    January 6, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  56. STEM_major

    A well-rounded education should equip an individual with the ability to communicate effectively, and language skills are certainly part of that. One needs to read manuals and reports, write papers, memos, emails, and so forth, regardless of one's chosen field. A good education should impart students with analytical skills.

    With that out of the way, I believe the author of this article oversells his product. None of the attributes mentioned are unique to English majors. The contention has never been that an education in English is of no value (I mean education, not degree); rather, that the skills acquired during the course of a degree in English do not meet the requirements of most jobs. Given the choice between an individual with a math background who has an acceptable command of English (easily evaluated in an interview) and an English major who read Shakespeare, Yeats, and Keats, most employers would choose the former. The skills of a mathematician translate favorably into multiple fields: sciences, accounting, business, to name a few. There are very few well-paying jobs in the world that require no math. This isn't to suggest that English majors can't balance (or cook) books. This is to suggest that their resume suggests nothing in that direction.

    As an English Professor, the author's opinion is understandable; after all, the funding of his department, himself, his students, and his department attracting more students depends on convincing others (and possibly himself) of the value of the degree in the job market. In my opinion, an undergrad English major would either have to pursue a masters in another field (such as law or business), or do a PhD and become a university professor. I'm hard-pressed to think of a position outside of academia that would be specifically looking for an undergrad English major. That, to my mind, is suggestive.

    [ – A stem major for whom English is a second language, albeit a narrow second ]

    January 6, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  57. valarltd

    I took an English degree because I washed out an engineering program. For me, it will always be a mark of failure.
    I've worked many bad jobs, including casino cashier, library paraprofessional and waitress. I've also written thirteen novels (11 are published, one comes out in Feb and one just went out to the editor today).

    I haven't found that an English degree was anything other than two and a half years of writing book reports, or worse, writing meta papers about someone else's analysis. It hasn't benefited me half as much as getting a CDL.

    January 6, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • Nathan

      You must have been in a very sad, limited program. I am sorry for your negative experience.

      January 6, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
    • Billcody

      you are so full of cr@p. You don't even have an English degree. Any decent sized company needs people who can write. If there are none in your city, move.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:07 am |
      • vbscript2

        Lots of people can write. You don't have to have an English degree to be able to write. Many people straight out of high school can write well and nearly anyone who has been through grad school (especially grad school that isn't M.Ed. or MBA) can write well, regardless of major. Most majors require you to have published research as part of a graduate program.

        The job prospects, especially entry-level job prospects, for English majors have always been poor and are getting worse. We're producing far too many graduates with English degrees and not enough with engineering or medical degrees. Back when Dempsey graduated, just having a Bachelor's Degree (in almost anything) was enough to get your foot in the door for many jobs. That's not the case anymore. I'm 26 and many people my age and younger have found that out the hard way. While pretty much all of my friends in engineering, medical, and scientific fields got jobs immediately after graduation, many of my friends who studied humanities worked part-time jobs for years after college and some of them are still working those jobs 4 and a half years after graduation. Sure, some humanities majors will find good jobs right out of school, but it's becoming more the exception than the rule. The only reasons I would recommend a humanities degree to someone starting college now is if they want to get a Ph.D. and teach humanities at the collegiate level or if they want to go to law school after undergrad.

        January 7, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  58. Just find what the hell makes YOU happy, focus on that & you'll do fine.

    To Who give's an eff about an oxford comma?:

    It's as pointless to cite your "higher end income" as it is to use statistics in general for these kinds of things. The main issue is that our society does not view the Humanities as worthwhile. If there WAS a better way to fit English majors into the whole wage slavery thing we've got goin' on, employers would be all over them. It's why they're paying you so well. Congratulations on being a good little slave. Keep it up and make sure to teach your kids what you've learned, so they can grow up to be just like you and make sure things stay exactly the same for the next.... however long.


    As a side note: this article is basically worthless. I was not an English major as an undergrad. As a grad right now, I have absolutely no problem saying that I (still) write better than my peers in the program (the ones who did get a BA in English, I mean.)

    All that actually means is that I can read a syllabus and that I can discern which professor has feminist leanings, who likes what sort of references, and what journals they read. And that I use spell check. There are people lacking "organizational skills," BASIC logic and/or any idea on how to behave like a "normal" human being around others in every single discipline. Some of these baboons are actually put in charge of whole programs. Some become poet laureates. One's income should not be viewed as a person's worth in general, just like their "degree" shouldn't be taken as an indication of their intelligence or reasoning skills. If you didn't learn as much in your first semester of college, thennnnn.... you're welcome.

    January 6, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  59. johnny975

    The tone of this article sounds like the author is trying to convince employers to hire English majors. Rather than saying there actually are ample job opportunities out there.

    January 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  60. Robert

    As a history major I can attest to the fact that my degree has given me perspective and thinking skills colleagues of mine lack. I can also attest to the fact that almost all perspective employers don't care about that. On the job training doesn't exist anymore. "This is not a school" is what you'll hear from potential employers. All they want is a degree in the field the open position is in. Also, working on a Master's helps as well.

    January 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  61. Scott

    Humanities are not as valued as engineering, science, technology, math, and finance are. They are fine up through high school. But college should be something more specialized. Most of these specializations involve applied mathematics. Even then, a degree is still relatively generic and a person often will become much more specialized once they enter the workforce. A generic liberal arts degree is less meaningful in the modern world.

    January 6, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Dan

      More specialized training should be in VoTech school. It does not require a college degree.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  62. Mike

    General Dempsey also graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with B.S. Although West Point did not have majors then, the core curriculam was primarily mathematics, science and engineering, but also included substantial requirements in history, political science, foreign languages, law, economics, English literature, psychology, and philosophy. In other words, it was a broadly based program that was genuinely "liberal arts" in the classical sense.

    January 6, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  63. karlblessing

    Sadly many employers lack the critical thinking skills in choosing an ideal candidate. Many of the hiring staff are just head-hunters. They're going to forward the candidates that have degrees and experiences that closely match the job requirement. If the job requires information technology or political science, most recruitment firms will push someone who has a degree in either, rather than neither.

    While someone may exhibit a good degree of critical thinking or problem solving, they can rarely solve their own employment problem with only that.

    January 5, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  64. GadFly2

    The individual and his/her motivation always make a difference. If you're motivated, work hard, and ARE LUCKY. I cannot believe how many people with "useless" degrees like mine (general humanities) are succeeding, gainfully employed and enjoying themselves still learning and working, while even "useful" degrees unlike mine (computer science, engineering) have been laid off, "retired" early, and are miserable. I don't earn a mint, but have health insurance and paid off the school loans. So do what you love, do your best and keep an open mind.

    January 5, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
  65. jeremtaylor

    Nice anecdote. Here are some statistics:

    January 5, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  66. gconz

    The realization that the JCS Chair majored in English just made me feel a lot less safe.

    January 5, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • Ray Bradbury

      That's when innovation steps in. If Steve Jobs had to feel "safe"...........

      January 5, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • theala

      So you prefer someone who doesn't know how to think to lead our military?

      January 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • Ryan

      The english major is his least admirable quality when it comes to his qualifications. The english major had very little to do with him being picked. Graduating from West Point, a Master's in Military Art and Science from US Army Command and General College, and a Master's in national security and strategic studies from the National War College most likely are what got him there. The english major is barely an anecdote in this man's career. The man is a 4-star general for christ's sake

      January 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  67. xavi

    It's not what you know. It's who you know. English majors will ask what is 'it'?

    January 5, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • Robyn Cleveland

      *WHOM you know.....sheesh.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • fxrh

      To the contrary - English majors will say "It's WHOM you know."

      January 7, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  68. slrman

    Absolute BS. After 30 years as a technical writer and publications manager, I never mat anyone with an English degree that was any good at it. Having a degree in English does not mean a person can write anything other than perfectly punctuated gibberish. I know there must be exceptions to this, but I never saw any.

    It's called "Technical Writing" for a reason. I person must first have a technical inclination. Few English majors will have that. The first rule of technical writing is that it must be written so it cannot be misunderstood. This rule transcends the rules of grammar and all other language trivialities. English majors tend to focus on those trivialities instead of the real task of expressing a complex subject in a way that the intended audience can understand.

    It eventually became so obvious to me that I wold not even interview anyone with a degree in English. The best writer I ever hired was a woman with a degree in physics. Her resume was the best organized, most clearly written one I had ever seen. That told me she had an organized mentality and could pay attention to detail. Those factors are critical for writing anything, particularly technical writing. With a recent degree in physics (4.0 gpa) her technical qualifications were obvious.

    January 5, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • slrman?

      Question. After all that, did you proofread? If not, go back and read it...

      January 5, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
      • slrman

        If you knew anything about writing, you would know that editing your own writing, especially when it's fresh is never a good idea. You see what you think you wrote.

        You hint at mistakes but you don't mention them. Tell us, what are they? I think you're a liar and jealous of your inability to comprehend anything. There's no fool like a willfully ignorant fool. Yes, that does mean you.

        January 6, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • winmo

      Re: Sirman. Anyone read a good technical manual recently? I think not. Point taken

      January 6, 2013 at 11:06 am |
      • slrman

        No, probably not you. For sure.

        January 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • GZ

      I agree. If you wanted to hire someone to do technical analysis you would hire a STEM major, not an English major. While English majors may read complex material and "analyze" it, their analysis is only their opinion of what the piece means and is only right because others (professors) believe it to be correct. This is very different from STEM based fields where people are taught to organize complex data based on the scientific method and rigorous statistical analysis. The author perhaps demonstrates the difference between these two training methods best when he discusses the results of a study which show that students who read 40 pages a week and write at least 20 pages a semester see an increase in the tested skill set. He seems to interpret this as meaning, " The more reading and writing they did – serious reading, analytical writing – the more they learned." This statement can't be analyzed because it was not part of the test. If I read challenging material all semester without sleep, will I get smarter or just get sick/die? This and many other aspects were not tested. Using the author's logic, companies could make all sorts of strategic decisions based on data analysis which are in fact unrelated to the data because they weren't actually tested for. This is not to say that people should not major in English, it just means that if your goal is to be the best in the world at technical analysis or critical thinking it may not be the best choice.

      January 6, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • theala

      " I person must first have a technical inclination."

      The person . . . .

      "I wold not even interview anyone"

      Would, not wold. Wold is something else.

      If the point of technical writing is so that it cannot be misunderstood, then your own writing clearly fails the test. I would not hire you to be my technical writer.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • To slrman

      "I never MAT anyone..."

      January 7, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  69. Caiha

    The hostility in the comments here is truely hilarious. Some guy is just try to say that having a degree in English may in fact be useful, and you're all flipping out over it. Please, grow a spine, and try walking upright.

    January 5, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • Nicole

      The hostility in these comments also indicates a lack of critical thinking. The author was pointing out that English degrees and ones like them are helpful in ways many people don't consider, He was not deriding anyone for getting a degree outside of those he was writing about. Further, he never claimed that critical thinking was the exclusive domain of liberal arts degrees. If nothing else, these hostile comments illustrate that those people have poor reading comprehension.

      January 5, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  70. Who give's an eff about an oxford comma?

    I have a Pharm. D, hate poetry, and have no idea how to use commas. Doesn't affect my ability to write persuasively, critically analyze data, or make a higher end income. Not saying an English Degree is worthless but I'd like to see some statistics regarding English Degrees to back this article up; Average Income of the degree holder, unemployment percentage within the group, etc. One person is anecdotal, population statistics is where it's at.

    January 5, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  71. Wait... What?

    Or you could work through an engineering or physics degree and obtain greater critical thinking and intellectual skills as well as benefit society a great deal more.

    January 5, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • David

      Many engineers I know are great people, but they have no clue how to write. They can hardly put a sentence together or spell a word. You might be the best engineer on the planet, but if somebody doesn't come along and put your discoveries into words people can understand, all your work will amount to naught.

      January 5, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
      • Ray Bradbury

        True of CEO's, CFO's, COO's and small business owners! Dumb as rocks when it comes to writing skills! That's why they hire us admins, to clean up. lol

        January 5, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  72. Jerry

    Yes Virginia, there is a word mispelled sometimes (I'm probably even misspelling "mispelled". We need people who want to dedicate their careers to proper syntaz and mispellings to keep us nuckle-dragging engineers on our feet. Some of the most inventive people never finished college.

    January 5, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • New coined term

      I love the word, "Syntaz"....sounds like jazzy syntax!

      January 7, 2013 at 7:31 am |
  73. Sean Cohmer

    The only part of this that I truly disagree with is the line at the end in italics that reads:

    "The opinions expressed are solely those of Michael Bérubé."

    January 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  74. JessieB

    As a teacher at the college level, I'm tired of having to defend myself in the classroom– of defending teaching my students the analytical skills needed to discuss literature. As an instructor of basic composition and remedial classes, I'm told that I just need to teach them about writing, but somehow reading is set aside and somehow not connected. I just had this conversation with a colleague who criticized my teaching of "advanced ideas" that he felt the mainstream– read Business, Nursing, and non-Humanities students– didn't need to know. Really? So teaching kids about how to interpret material, how to make connections, find patterns, do exactly what Mr. Bérubé is saying is somehow, now, beyond the average college student? That's pathetic. I'm of the opinion that more students should be taught a foundation in the humanities at the college level and perhaps then we'd have more thinkers entering the job market– and the halls of government. I have kids who have been so coddled that they can't deal with the mechanics of language, can't argue or defend their opinions (if they even have opinions), and have NO CLUE about American or Global History. I have Business Majors who don't know what the Bill of Rights are and Nursing Majors that can't exactly define what biology is. I'm sorry– but my English degree may not have prepared me to tackle Einstein's Theory of Relativity, but it did give me the skills to think for myself. I only wish more people in our country were able to do that.

    January 5, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • Ray Bradbury

      The best article to date! Truly, most peeps don't know how to write persuasively (business). Read and discuss, something heads of companies must do often. I LOVE this article! How many business owners and CEO's out there don't know jack about how to write, let alone read and discuss? I can count a few I've had to work for and proof material for and even end up writing for. Maybe that's why we're in a recession?? for thought.

      January 5, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • Ray Bradbury

      Absolutely true!!! I just wrote a Letter of Intention for a pharmaceutical student seeking a PhD program. Could not put his thoughts on paper let alone construct three paragraphs! He kept asking me, an English major, how do you do that? Yes, I am a quick thinker and writing comes easy. It ought to for most native speakers! 🙂

      January 5, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • LF

      I agree, Jessie. I am teaching Developmental Writing, and too many students cannot perform analysis or form opinions.

      January 5, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • CPT Ron

      You mean what the Bill of Rights IS...right there sparky? Some professor! Wait wait...tell me unique can be used with qualifiers. At which community college do you teach?

      January 7, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  75. Steve-Illinois

    Ha, ha, ha, that's rich!

    January 5, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  76. mireille taar

    Halleluiah! Finally we come to it. I saw it coming decades ago in the education world. Here is hoping that we never again allow ourselves to be diminished, derided, or treated with contempt by narrow minded money mongers. It had to come to that some day, the imbalance was too much to bear. I hope we never do this again to future generations in the name of money, dumb our youth down for our selfish personal or international motives. May we always prevent and never have to cure. When enough people believe in the true aim of education, we will be able to. Thank you.

    January 5, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  77. Virginia Woolf

    Love how you misspelled "Caribbean" in the process of gloating about not having an English degree.

    January 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • CPT Ron

      Virginia! How can you speak with your lungs full of water?

      January 7, 2013 at 12:54 am |
  78. 1_4Eaglemeat

    I do believe that those of us with degrees in the humanities have superior writing skills. I am horrified by what I have read written by business majors. I am embarrassed for them. The Wharton School of Business grads are the best of the best in business...but too often they need letters written for them or heavily edited. These are brilliant people, scary smart people really, but they have not been trained to write and that is a crime. A degree in the Humanities imbues the mind with the “color” of words and the strength of the pen. A degree in the Humanities bestows the skill to write and argue and express with ideas and nuances within our wonderful English language. Solid writing skills are critical to any professional. Writing skills are powerful and having a large vocabulary tames many a shrew (sorry I could not go by that). Universities short change their business students by not requiring more humanities studies in their core curriculum. Yes, Shakespeare and Chaucer can bore a person to tears. These writers dent your brain if you read too much of their work. Let’s be honest, Chaucer is downright painful to read; on the other hand Samuel T. Clemons can make a person laugh so hard they cannot turn a page. English writing skills can only be learned by reading many thick books and writing equally thick term papers for tough professors that were never satisfied and I will remember them for the rest of my life. Thirty years later I thank them for their red pens. I sure did not at the time

    January 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  79. Gigi

    What is the purpose of an education? getting a job? Yes, getting a job is important , but it is not the only purpose of education. An education should aim to produce an educated person, a civilized person, a person who can think logically, ethically, creatively, compassionately, intelligently.

    January 5, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  80. Linda

    I can attest to the fact that a humanities degree can prepare you for many types of work. I have a philosophy degree and work as a training manager in health care. With a philosophy degree it was difficult to get my first job, but once I found a job the skills I learned while studying philosophy, research, writing, and critical thinking, definitely helped me move up quickly. The key to success in the workplace depends more on being willing to take on new challenges, continuing to learn, and dedication than whether or not you have a technical degree. I manage many people with Curriculum and Instruction degrees, CIT degrees and nursing degrees.

    January 5, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  81. Jennifer Brozek

    I will tell you what, a degree in English prepares the person for jobs that involve tough decisions and require good instincts. The study of English and Literature helps a person interpret and deal with ambiguities, make inferences and form opinions based on supported reasoning. The degree in English also hones the ability to accurately express exaclty what one is thinking–a skill I have found (after years of editing) to be severely lacking in most individuals. Most people make a close approximation as to what they are trying to convey, but misplace words and commas, which drastically alters the meaning. Furthermore, a degree in English and literature, I believe, increases sensitivity to moral, cultural and societal issues. The employer that DOES value these skills and traits will recognize the value of a person with a degree in English. BUT, what a degree in English doesn't do is give a person a knowledge base in a specialty that is relevant to most job requirements. Fortunately, the nature of the degree will have taught the English grad how to deal with the ambiguities of being a generalist (I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek). At a minimum, the English grad may be prepared to creatively forge their own path, bs-ing their way into a job they desire and learning pertinent skills on-the-job by engaging in independent-thinking. Or just go back to school, like I did. But, I still would not trade my degree in English for anything. Clear communication and higher-level thinking is fundamental to human life in every way shape and form. If you have an English degree and you are upset because you can't find a job, you are not realizing the value of what you possess and are therefore not realizing your true potential.

    January 5, 2013 at 9:32 am |
  82. Jerry

    I went to night college for eight years to get a degree in engineering. I was never out of work for almost 50 years before retiring on my sailboat in the Caribben. Any kind of high tech degree is the only way to go. The country is going down the drain. The only people who will have good jobs in the future will work for the government, be a prison guard or work your way up through the military ranks. The top 20% of high-tech educated people will always be in demand.

    January 5, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • David


      That might have worked for your generation, but tech jobs are going overseas fast. We young people are living in a different world, here. Do you realize how many people on this planet are dying to learn English right now? That wasn't the case 50 years ago when you were in school.

      January 5, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • Malle

      Yes because we don't require ANY other job positions and the future will have completely eliminated the entertainment industry, the arts, teaching, rehabilitation, etc etc. You know our infrastructure is a lot more than just tech, military, gov, and prisons and a lot of it involves things that you think will be entirely cut from our culture. People need more than just tech (i.e. Film is not just a set of cameras staring out into space) in their lives and the arts provide a lot of what they want and need.

      January 5, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  83. Real Patriot

    Philosophy, Dance, and Wine are the 3 most useless degrees that qualify you to be absolutely nothing. Smart people go into healthcare where there will always be a need.

    January 4, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • Dan

      Just work for the federal government. There are plenty of jobs for people with any type of degree, they really don't care what type of degree it is as long as you have one.

      January 5, 2013 at 6:16 am |
    • Kevin

      If people would eat healthy we would not need 30% of the people in the health care industry. It should not be called an industry in the first place. It makes it sound like you all produce or manufacture something, but perhaps you do. Misinformation and legal drugs.

      January 5, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Dan

      If you check, you'll see that Philosophy majors earn more than Business majors over their careers.

      January 5, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • Mark

      I don't know where you're drawing your conclusions from. At my college - which, if it means anything, is consistently ranked in the top 20 - I am always struck by the kinds of people that go into any field related to healthcare. Premeds? Sure, there are a good number who are intelligent, but no more than those in other fields. Nursing and healthcare administration? Not so much. A lot of times these are people who care only marginally about the field and don't apply themselves as a result.

      January 5, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
  84. empresstrudy

    But on the whole, it's a sucker bet. Of course there are outliers (do you know what that is?) where here and there someone's real brilliance will shine through and win out (but imbibed liberals don't generally root for brilliance preferring instead the safety and political correctness of, well, political correctness) however if we look at the wider scope of more or less everyone, you're better off not doing that. Avocation and vocation are different things. You may wish to ascribe some dark plot to The Man for offering careers to engineers, scientists, the STEM arena generally but by and large that's the approximate skill set we and they need. After it's a lot more likely for a quant to eventually run a great and liberal foundation than it is for a lit major to rise to the top of the aerospace engineering ranks. Not impossible mind you but not likely.

    January 4, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  85. desert voice

    In a nutshell, I also hold an English degree in British Victorian-Romantic Literature. I think that it did help me in many ways, once I went to philosophy and theology. The English Degree, first of all, helped me in mastering English, which was not my native language, and which I didn"t know. It also helped me to think methodologically, but at much later date. Before that, British poetry and prose was more obstacle than help in that respect. My methodological "awakening" came very late in life, in Poland and in the Polish language. But my overall thinking process owes a great deal to having learned fluently not just English, but Spanish and Italian. It is amazing how the German-influenced thinking methodology helps a doctoral student to master difficult questions of the day. I wish I had been taught these things in the U.S.!

    January 4, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  86. Jim

    I don't know what you're smoking think it takes immersing oneself in complex material that requires intense concentration to get an English degree from a state university. Sure, an Ivy league education is an Ivy League education but many public universities use arts and humanities degrees to get students out the door with some sort of degree. The degree isn't everything. If you graduate with a 2.9 from State U with an English degree ... well McDonalds is always hiring.

    January 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • Danny Anderson

      Alright, Jim. And if you graduate from a state U with a 2.9 in business, then Wall Street will beat down your door? I think you have a delusion about the nature of higher ed. I myself went to a State U and English was definitely NOT the degree that people chose just to "get out of the door," as you say. As to your larger point though, of course the quality of the individual student is important. No one suggest it isn't. You're reading something into the piece that isn't there.

      January 4, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  87. Danny Anderson

    Reblogged this on The Arnoldian Project and commented:
    An eminent professor of English has written an insightful defense of majoring in English on a CNN blog today. I've never tried this "Reblog" thing before, but I found the ideas to be worth spreading. Essentially, English as a discipline needs to think about ways to make a larger contribution to the culture. The professionalization of the discipline has been destructive on many levels, one of which is our self-imposed exile from the worlds of commerce and business. English majors, if encouraged to take their humanistic education outside the academy, could, I believe, make a major impact on the culture.

    January 4, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  88. Danny Anderson

    I love this article and I'll be sharing it with my own students this semester. I do, however, think that Shelli's comment bears some consideration. I do think that English trains its students more completely than many other technically-focused majors, but we do need to make that obvious to folks outside of English. I think that getting English majors into professional internships while in college would be a great idea, both for English's reputation (so others can see our fabulous majors!) and for the students themselves. Giving students the opportunity to apply the lessons of their major to the world of business and commerce would be a great supplement to the education of their whole being.

    January 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
  89. wrm

    "if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, ..."

    Apparently you believe that people who do not have degrees in the humanities are incapable of being creative. I would suspect that employers want someone who is both capable of doing useful work _and_ is capable of communicating it.

    January 4, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  90. shelli

    I got a degree in English in 1995, and although I agree with everything you say here about the value of a degree in the humanities, the fact remains that I was not qualified for most of the jobs I wanted when I got into my late twenties. PR jobs required degrees in PR or journalism. Jobs at publishing houses wanted years of experience in publishing. Colleges and universities need to speak to English majors about planning for the future and perhaps help them obtain internships or even do a double major. I didn't receive any counseling about this. All I ever heard was that "You can do anything with an English major." What a rude awakening I had. I think every student needs to consider his/her options early on and find out what their major may be lacking and then find ways of filling those gaps while they are young. This is something I will be helping my own children with so that hopefully they won't flounder for as long as I did after their education.

    January 4, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • bren

      I'm a senior in college (Poli Sci Major/ English Minor) and am quickly finding this out. This is so true.

      January 5, 2013 at 2:47 am |
      • Margaret

        An internship is essential. Find the best company/organization you can and apply for an internship - even an unpaid internship if you can manage that. Consider a White House internship. The WH internship lasts a couple of months. Doesn't matter your political leanings, just do it. It will open many doors and looks great on a resume.

        January 5, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • Erika

      I have to agree with you, shelli. I just graduated from my University with a Bachelors in creative writing. I was an editor for a literary journal that was published through the University and was active around the campus in different organizations dealing with creative writing and English. I chose my major because I enjoyed it and it was something I was passionate about, but even I've realized that I am NOT prepared. Everyone keeps asking me what I plan on doing from here on out and all I can say is: pay off my massive student loan, save money, then pay for graduate school out of pocket so I can gain access to crucial internships SOMEWHERE in the world without being in a 30 year long debt. I don't even care where it is, as long as I get it because I've quickly found out that my degree, although I love that I have it, will get me absolutely NOWHERE as far as an actual career in my chosen field is concerned.

      January 5, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
      • LF

        Erika, you should try technical writing. It can be a fun career, and many companies accept a general English degree.

        January 5, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
      • AaaaCccc

        And your statement about massive student debt is the problem. When I went to school, I could work to keep my Ivy League educational expenses reasonable. I paid them off with working on a low stipend until I finally had a high paying salary. The cost of education today is outrageous and crippling. One has to make themselves highly marketable because one has huge debt on day 1 of graduation. Deferment only balloons the debt.

        January 7, 2013 at 5:34 am |
    • GJF

      It's a good point, Shelli, but what you're pointing to is not the degree itself but bad (or absent) advising. It's true in all fields at this point that people should be advised to take on internships or other experiential learning that will allow you a foot in the door after college. Without helping students do so is a negligence on the school and advisors, but not necessarily a result of the degree.

      January 5, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  91. Lem

    Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Donuts.

    January 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  92. Alex


    January 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  93. ricky

    mrs.murphy can i please have your autograph cuz your my idol 🙂

    January 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  94. Tom

    You don't actually owe us donuts but you should bring some anyways.

    January 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  95. barnum's world history class 3b

    you owe us donuts (positively) thanks 🙂

    January 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  96. Maggie Murphy

    Our classes have always enjoyed the shoutouts and the representation of different schools natiionwide. Please return to this practice and remember West High School in Sioux City Iowa.

    January 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
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