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In Defense of English Majors

Opinion | February 10, 2010

The thin, blue-jeaned Kashmiri shopkeeper leaned his elbows on the counter, his hazel eyes wide at the word “American.” Though he was not much older than myself, the experiences that had led us to that moment were vastly different; he had fled Kashmir along with other shopkeepers before finishing high school, while I was travelling with friends around India on our winter break. Without common backgrounds to guide the conversation, he asked us the usual questions.

“What school do you go to?”

“Tufts University,” we replied in concert. He hadn’t heard of it, but nodded kindly.

“In Boston,” I added, as I usually do when people haven’t heard of Tufts, but that seemed to make little difference to him.

“And what do you study?”

“Well, I’m an English major, and she’s an economics major,” I said, pointing to my friend who was mid-bargain.

After a pause, my other friend added, “And I’m an engineer.”

“An engineer, really? Wow!” the shopkeeper replied, suddenly becoming more interested. He began to relate the story of an uncle who had saved money his entire life to send his sons to school and was now proudly overseeing their engineering education at Texas University.

As the Kashmiri man’s smile grew, mine faded. This was perhaps the fifth conversation I had had in my two weeks in India in which the announcement of my English major was met with a sad smile, an awkward joke, a change of subject, or otherwise no response at all. My friend, the engineer, however, was met with approving nods and excited inquiries into his course of study and prospects. I myself was beginning to laugh it off, as if my education were some kind of joke, but then suddenly I would be jolted back to the memory of finals period during which I spent every waking hour of every day, including weekends, studying and writing what would ultimately amount to 42 pages. And then I would stop laughing. Was my choice of major truly laughable? Would four years of hard work really amount to little more than a life’s supply of condescending remarks and pitying smiles?

I was not fooled into thinking that this was a consequence of speaking with Indians rather than Americans. I have witnessed the same reactions at home, although the difference is that sometimes the people reacting were or are English or liberal arts majors themselves. Though I gathered from my Arabic professor that eastern cultures are especially deferential to scientific over humanistic courses of study, the universal consensus seems to be that students of science merit more respect than students of humanities.

I am sure that many Tufts students have encountered such reactions and wondered what was to become of the numerous tuition dollars and hours spent, and more frighteningly, what was to become of their future. But as I thought more about it, I realized the skills and the knowledge liberal arts students accrue are as integral to life as is science. Politics and economics govern our society as much as physics and biology do. Words and language are as critical in our daily functioning as are the technologies we use. We cannot spend a single day without contemplating philosophical decisions, using psychological processes, and experiencing social phenomena, just as we cannot spend a day without acting in accordance with the laws of science. Why, then, should it be any less important to study one over the other? If there were no expertise in matters of language, politics, economics, sociology, or philosophy, would the world run as smoothly? Would life be as interesting? I contend that it would not. And if I am right, then discouraging the study of these subjects is truly a dangerous enterprise.

In the final days of my trip in India, I stayed in Bombay and spent time with a diverse mélange of friends I had made along the trip. One of these friends is an anthropology major at Tufts who was spending three weeks in Bombay doing research for EPIIC on the Dharavi slums. The work she was doing was so fascinating, and our discussions about it so invigorating, that my faith in humanistic study was revitalized. If this student could derive such an incredible wealth of experience and knowledge from her studies, then so could I. Later on I spoke to Geet, a friend I had met in Bombay, who was studying commerce at H.R. College in the city. Upon hearing of my course of study, she confided that English was her favorite subject in high school, but the option of continuing to study it wasn’t available to her. Our conversation made me realize how fortunate I was to be given the choice to study liberal arts, for in many countries such programs are often not available, or are almost never encouraged. Valuing it as such gave me the confidence to reply with dignity and enthusiasm when people asked me what my major was, rather than muttering a half-hearted reply.

On the plane ride home, I sat next to a woman from Bombay who, to my surprise, had heard of Tufts. Heartened by her awareness of a college outside of the Ivy League, I told her enthusiastically that I was an English and possibly Peace and Justice Studies major. She smiled and said, “Well that’s wonderful!” and continued to talk to me about it for half an hour more. “That’s one for the liberal arts majors,” I thought afterwards and smiled as I began the journey back to another semester of humanities education.