In Defense of English, by Tom Barron ’15

The following is a slightly edited version of Tom Barron’s essay from his blog, Thought Bomber. To see the original and other writings by Tom, please visit  Used by permission, and with thanks!
Note: Tom is starting at Northwestern Law School in fall of 2017, where his writing and thinking skills will surely come in most handy.

In Defense of English

“What the hell are you going to do with an English degree?”

I’ve had the pleasure of answering this question an ungodly number of times. My responses tend to range from “I have no clue” to “probably be homeless.”

In actuality, it seems that my reply should be “anything I want.” The options are endless. I could follow in the footsteps of those English majors who went on to direct blockbuster moviespreside over the Supreme Courtlead giant broadcast networks, or run for president.

Yet the web is littered with articles like “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” and lists of the highest-paying majors, from which English is invariably absent. Studying literature for four years doesn’t exactly scream “qualified candidate” to Goldman Sachs or Google. It will never teach you how to analyze the derivatives market or program a string of code for Silicon Valley’s next unicorn. But what English teaches you is just as valuable, if not more so.

Studying English was the best decision I ever made in college. If you’re unsure of how to spend your four fleeting years of undergraduate, consider these benefits offered by English.

Become A Better Human

A hundred thousand years ago, our species shared the globe with several other types of humans. Eventually, those other species went extinct. What allowed our family to thrive while leaving the others to expire was our astounding ability to tell stories: to relate experience to others via observation and thinking.

Authors are the greatest observers of all. Their ultimate role in society is to illuminate that which goes unseen. Their targets are both micro- and macroscopic: a novelist may draw the reader’s attention to the flutter of the heroine’s eyes to unveil her secret desires, or he may peel back the layers of American culture to reveal trends we’ve never noticed.  Such storytelling is what makes humans successful—it is what enables us to learn from our mistakes. Without their founders’ prowess for narrative, how do you think Apple or Disney would have fared? Storytelling is what makes us human, and an English major enables you to study why.

Add Lives To Your Years

Unlike most of my fellow graduates, I’ve lived thousands of lives — and no, I’m not a Buddhist. Each time I open the cover of a new book, I infiltrate the minds of new characters. Whether reading fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, I briefly suspend my own existence to experience the world of someone else.

Reading is the original virtual reality. During my twenty-three years on this planet, I’ve spent time as presidents, soldiers, rulers, slaves, dealers and addicts, and men who lived in caves.  Each and every life I’ve entered into has made my own life richer. By rigorously studying story itself, a central tenet of the English major, the stories of those around you—as well as your own story—become  more meaningful.

It’s been shown that literature significantly improves empathy, granting you further access into the lives of others and making you a better person. Your life will be rendered to a higher definition, upgrading your experience of the world, making boredom a foreign experience; you’ll respond to others with more insight and understanding.  Literature truly puts the human in humanities.

Add Years To Your Life

Reading is a skill. Reading well is an art.

Though every boy and girl learns to make meaning of words and sentences before they are old enough to play in the park on their own, it seems that fewer and fewer cultivate this skill throughout their lifetimes. The average American adult caps off their reading ability at a 9th-grade level.

Reading is the fundamental way to learn about our world. The better you become at reading, the more efficient you become at acquiring knowledge and learning new skills. I can now walk into a bookstore confidently able to read any volume on its shelves and extract new information quickly and accurately, whether from a how-to book, a difficult novel, or a detailed biography. As an English major, you’ll learn to take the lessons gained from the lives of your favorite characters or role models — stories of their struggles, successes, relationships — and apply them to your own life.

Learning to read well is tantamount to learning how to learn. You may not be stock market savvy upon graduation, but you will surely be in a better position to learn the ropes. Likewise, learning to write well is the surest route to learning to think well. We often take thinking for granted, but like a muscle it atrophies without rigorous exercise. Learning to argue, on paper or in a discussion, will not only help you think more clearly, it is crucial to any job you will ever hold.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.” If you care to sharpen your axe, study English.
As we increasingly regard our college education as an investment in the future, we must look at English in a different light. Studying the world and yourself through the medium of language will make you more adept at being human and enrich your life as well as your bank account. I urge you to look at the English major as the ultimate investment: an investment in yourself.


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