I’m an English major. I applied to Penn as English and, to my own surprise, will graduate as an English major. I can’t count how many moments during my Penn career that I tried to switch out of English (or for that hot ten seconds in which I thought of transferring to Wharton). People often ask “what are you going to do with English” or respond with the comment “you must want to be a teacher.” This narrow-mindedness sadly testifies to the larger devaluation of the humanities within our overtly profit-oriented culture.
I am not the only person who has, in the past, felt anxiety majoring in the humanities. This perception of humanities as “impractical” is preposterously false — English majors have turned up everywhere and anywhere, bringing the rich literary experience to whatever job they may do. At Penn, “literary” has meant beyond books; I’ve studied an array of media and storytelling, including photography, plays, films, and even virtual reality. I’ve been able to stretch my imagination of what a “story” is and can look like.
Being an English (or any humanities major), is first and foremost, about learning how to think. How do we question our biases and our frameworks of the world that inform our viewpoints? How can we think about other viewpoints, cosmologies, and ways of being that shape the world and let us immerse ourselves in a way of rhetoric and communication that can be both persuasive and poetic too? Anyone who has studied English, including myself, knows the timeless value of such an education. I learned, as one famous Penn alum said, “to operationalize abstractions.” It is to think deeply about the way boundaries and cultures are constructed and how narratives and storytelling communicate the concepts that shape our political and social structures of reality.
What is the point and utility of an English major? Perhaps the unfortunate part is that the utility of English comes from to not think of it as utility. It’s about the sake of learning and embracing the fact that usefulness may also stem from what we don’t think of as neither useful nor useless. Learning and gaining knowledge is also pleasure, a pursuit worthwhile taking in a university full of possibilities. Regardless of what your career aspirations may be, take a leap of faith into the uncertain and explore where your intellectual curiosities may lie. The job(s) will come. But you won’t have the same opportunities to explore knowledge in the same way as you can right here at Penn.
A major, I believe, is meant to be just that: a lens, an opening, a starting point in which possibilities can also grow from. I chose to study English because of my love for stories. A good story has always given me the feeling of being alive; stories have shaped worlds, cultures, and ways of becoming that are rooted within our existence. That’s what storytelling has always been about — to imagine new visions and art forms to change the space and time we live in.