English Majors Save the World!

The following blog is my address to the English major’s honors convocation at the University of Tennessee on May 10, 2017. If you had seen them, if you had taught them, if you knew them, I believe you would agree with me that English majors will save the world. For the record, all the English majors answered yes to the first poll question, and in response to the second, all the devoted parents laughed nervously and only one raised her hand. This only made me love them more. I got a little verkempt at the end.

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator imagines defending her own readers against the charge that they are wasting their time reading novels:

“And what are you reading, Miss?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.”

I teach Jane Austen, and I also work on Restoration and 18th-century literature, but I have recently spent a little more time doing research in the 21st century as a way to help me understand what to tell my fantastic students about what we are all doing here. Specifically, how and what do English majors do in the world? And the news is good. But first, let me ask, how many people here have been teased about being an English major, including having to answer the question “so what are you going to do? Teach?”* And how many parents here were at least a little concerned when your student “came out” to you as an English major?** Yes, yes, it is true, we like big books and we just can’t lie. And yes, it’s true that we know the difference between their, they’re, and there. (That’s not as good a joke as Derrida’s infamous “différance” address, in which he told his French audience that meaning in language comes from both difference and deferral, which sound exactly the same in French, but still, I know you get it.) And yes, sometimes we have been silently correcting your grammar. All joking aside, though, I’m here to tell you that all those people who were teasing you about being an English major were wrong. Very wrong. Just a few years out from graduation, English majors do as well in overall employment stats as math and computer science majors, and better than business majors, according to a Georgetown survey of recent college graduates. We also know that English majors get jobs that can’t be outsourced, jobs based around human interactions, critical thinking, and communication. CEOs like Bracken Darrell of Logitech are pleading for more English majors. Law schools love you all. And the journalism firmament is full of English major stars: Barbara Walters, Grant Tinker, Bob Woodward, and Andrea Mitchell, to name a few. And we win, because, Emma Watson.

So congratulations! Congratulations for seeing beyond the STEM mania of our age, which has been with most of you from the cradle. Congratulations on taking the time to read deeply and broadly, to cultivate yourselves as writers, and to engage with the astonishing array of human experience available to us through novels, essays, poems, blogs, and plays. By spending your B.A. this way, you just made one of the most economically savvy decisions you could have made in an age when we have to seek “robot-proof” jobs. You all have the soft skills that employers want. You’ll start companies we haven’t even thought of yet. You’ll write the scripts, video games, business plans, web sites, and novels of the future. And yes, hopefully sooner rather than later, you will get paid for it!

But wait, there’s more. You may not have thought about it this way, but by being an English major, you are also participating in one of the most urgent, life-giving, and promising projects of our age, something that goes beyond employment or financial success. I’m calling it the project of deep literacy. It involves listening carefully, thinking clearly, and writing with grace and honesty. As my students will tell you, I believe that English majors are going to save the world. I say it often, unapologetically, and without irony. And with the rest of my time today, I’m going to tell you exactly how English majors are going to save the world. Feel free to tweet the instructions at #utkenglish.

English majors will save the world because they write beautifully. Writerly elegance—the capacity to take someone’s breath away with a beautiful phrase, which Alexander Pope described as the ability to say “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”—is not about being decorative. It’s about bringing clarity, truth, and grace to the act of communication. It’s also about being honest. George Orwell argued in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity." Euphemism, phraseology, and inflated style, he argues, defend the indefensible by distracting us from matters of great concern. Orwell believed that thought could corrupt language, and that language could corrupt thought. In an age of “alternative facts,” it’s hard to disagree. But the creative and honest use of language creates the conditions for what Benedict Anderson called an imagined community, a group of people who share common dreams, who talk about the future, who communicate. In our age of fracture, when talking heads shout from their virtual boxes, we know we have a crisis on our hands. Political scientists may be able to tell us what went wrong, but it’s up to the poets, the essayists, the screenwriters, and all of us who care about clear, meaningful communication to give us some stories we can share, to model meaningful conversations, to check our facts and then speak the truth in love. Who knows? Maybe some linguist in this room will find a way to communicate with actual aliens and change the course of human history; or, maybe the movie Arrival was a parable about the transformational act of reading and listening well, the everyday miracle of language that can bring parties from the brink of war to the path of understanding.

Next, English majors will save the world because they are cultivating their capacity for empathy. Every time you read a novel, a poem, an essay, or a play, you engage with the idea of another consciousness, which serves as a cognitive spur to the radical idea Eve Sedgwick made her first axiom: that people are different from one another. Blakey Vermule recently argued in a book called Why We Care About Literary Characters that fictional characters

are the greatest practical-reasoning schemes ever invented. We use them to sort out basic moral problems or to practice new emotional situations. We use them to cut through masses of ambient cultural information. Our eternally premodern brains have simply not caught up to the speed and complexity of the vast moving world—so we use them in place of statistics as tools to muddle through.

The different reactions, choices, and feelings to which we become privy as readers don’t lead us to despair about our differences. Instead, we learn to celebrate them as what makes the story. That Iago is not Othello, that Gulliver is not Emma, that Sula is not Beowulf, and that Plath is not Wordsworth are all wonderful things to realize. And once we do realize it, we would not level their differences. Instead, we extend ourselves to meet them, not to strip out their complexities but to revel in them. And I realize I am breaking that first law of the New Criticism, treating a fictional character like a real person, identifying with them, imagining myself to be them. But this unwritten law, like the Prime Directive on Star Trek, was a rule meant to be broken. That imaginative identification turns out to be better than an HR course. It trains us to relate to people, to sort inferences, reactions, motivations, and choices. It is also the gateway to taking joy in our shared humanity, joy in the wonder of communication.

Finally, English majors will save the world because they are the masters of time. In the musical Hamilton, characters repeatedly ask Alexander Hamilton “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” English majors write like they’re running out of time, but they read like they own mountains of the stuff. You have rediscovered slow time in an age of instant gratification because you read. And by reading, you have cultivated your powers of attention, your patience, your own interiority. You know how to code-switch; you are digital natives who think fast, who move between tasks, and who are quite literally wired differently than people 50 years your senior. Critic Katherine Hayles argues that you can manage both “hyper and deep attention” in your reading and cognitive styles. You know how to concentrate, slow down, and read for details, but you also know how to meme, recombine, and think about networks of relations. These hard-won skills mean that you have the chance to live a life in the digital age that is not consumed by digital distraction. And here, I must confess my own susceptibility to the imbalance that faces us all, which my students already know, after watching me screech into my classroom, especially this semester, while I was also working on the CBT’s The Busy Body, a 1709 comedy by Susanna Centlivre that could have been named for me. I was often fresh from the email avalanche, or from my own online search for a video clip to show you, or from skimming a new essay from an online journal, or conferring on skype with my co-editors, or after getting a little lost in the digital Jane Austen manuscript archive. I get it; we live in a world that’s not paced for long 18th-century novels. But on the days when my digital distraction threatened to overcome my better angels and that precious, kairotic orientation to slow time, you all saved me. You did it by reading with me, by parsing lines of Rochester’s scandalous rage at authority, or by admiring the cool calculation of John Dryden’s couplets (Dryden who, according to Samuel Johnson, found the English language brick and left it marble). You did it by opening Pride and Prejudice to marvel at the precision of Elizabeth Bennet’s comebacks to Lady Catherine, that “obstinate, headstrong girl’s” refusal to be intimidated. Together, we got lost in it, and we watched the literary Davids of the world slay Goliaths with a few well-aimed words.

Inscribed on the tombstone of John Keats, the great Romantic poet, is the sentence: “here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats captured the ephemeral nature of our existence. We do not live forever; we will pass and be forgotten with the rest; we are mortal. But we also have words, and, with them, we leave our mark on the world in more ways that we will ever know; in Keats’s case, those words about the liquid impermanence of life were written in stone. Perhaps it was a twee, precious joke, but it worked. The sentence is still there. And the world knows his name, as it does Alexander Hamilton’s, Virginia Woolf’s, Ta-Nehisi Coat’s, William Shakespeare’s. Maybe soon, it will know your name, too. Write your way out.

Again, congratulations. Congratulations on making your life a powerful counter-argument to the cynical and demoralizing voices of our age, and congratulations on finding each other along the way. I am so, so glad to know that you are heading out there. History has its eyes on you.

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