"so, what are you going to do with that?"
As a former English major, and now, English degree holder: the question that has constantly plagued my small talk conversations and visits to my hometown were almost always met with the anticipated yet somewhat antagonistic question of “Oh—what do you want to do with that?”, followed by its sometimes more patronizing counterpart: “So, do you want to like, teach?”
image by @orionvanessa
I wasn’t always offended by the presumptive nature of these conversations. In some ways, it isn’t a farfetched belief to assume that having a degree in English would allow you to later pursue a career in teaching, and truthfully if I had not pursued marketing, I might likely consider going into education at some point. The problem with this conversation lies within the reductive and particularly dismissive rhetoric of English (or any ‘creative’ subject) as an “impractical” or “useless” field of study. It was the suggestion that firstly: teaching isn’t a respectable, livable, or valuable career choice, and secondly: that there are only a couple career opportunities that can come out of an English degree, all of which won’t make you a lot of money or make you very successful. But, in many cases, this rhetoric is simply ignorance.
One of the ongoing problems I have seen within the dichotomy between the association of English majors vs. STEM majors is the idea that the liberal art fields contain less important value in the world, meaning that many people do not truly understand the place or use for non STEM fields in society. While STEM holds a pretty comprehensive/universally important association and reputation, it’s incredibly difficult for people to recognize that science, technology, engineering, and medicine are not the only fields that have immense amounts of influence upon the shaping of our modern world—and that many people in creative fields or liberal arts have had an additionally important part in cultivating these industries.
Let’s make this abundantly clear: the technology that we have today could only be achieved through creatives—designed and visualized by people who have single-handedly invented the efficient and universally accessible user experience that we use every day, working alongside the software engineers that are traditionally credited for it. The scrubs that are often an integral uniform for the STEM job that you believe is more important than creative ones are strategically marketed, designed, and sold by a creative team who allowed you to buy their product. The media, news, and entertainment you consume on a daily basis when you are aimlessly scrolling through your news feed are made by writers, journalists, and creative professionals, many of whom obtained liberal arts degrees.
Aside from the fact that YOU WILL ALWAYS NEED PROFICIENT SKILLS IN WRITING, COMMUNICATION, AND CRITICAL THINKING FOR ANY JOB YOU HAVE, let’s not be mistaken about the importance of creatives in the modern world: their jobs are equally as valuable and necessary as traditional careers in STEM, and our failure to recognize their role in shaping culture is not so much the fault of the creative industry as it is a fault of our culture itself. It is the deeply rooted belief that if you are creatively minded, you cannot also be intelligent and useful to society in any practical way. See Meryl Streep’s monologue in “The Devil Wears Prada” for an even better example of this.
Another issue within the continued stigmatization of English seems to be the very limited awareness and emphasis placed upon the versatility of English as a field of study. For the most part, people continue to perceive English as purely a study of literature, education, or creative writing, but don’t know realize that it can be a pretty immersive entryway to other areas in marketing, politics, law, or practically any other career that you hope to apply it to. You can be a Biology major who still fails the medical boards, and you can also be an English major who ends up going to law school. In any field of study, it is not so much about the immediate translation of how you can use your major, but the application of your major to both cultivate and support your career and professional goals. What you do with your major is entirely up to you, and there is not one singular pathway to success that will be backed by any one major.
The truth is: you will likely be better and more successful at your job if you spend time studying something you feel passionate about/interested in rather than a major you believe will result in the ‘smartest’ or most highly regarded career. As an English major, I was able to access opportunities in digital media and marketing in my early years of college. Today, my first job out of college is in marketing for a globally recognized beauty brand that I've known since childhood. As grateful and lucky as I feel to be working one of my dream jobs out of college, this job was not given to me out of luck: it came from years of hard work and an education (IN ENGLISH!) that allowed me to be qualified for the job that I wanted. Being a liberal arts major should not be seen and stigmatized as “less” than that of a more traditional STEM major, and sometimes, it can be the gateway to a unique and amazing career doing what you love.
Let’s take a second to be more thoughtful about how we discuss and appreciate our different careers and areas of study: all of them have their own value, importance, and impact on the world, and it’s up to you to decide what that will be.