Five reasons to major in English

By Bridgitte Barclay | July 20, 2020

Student in library

To me, the strongest argument for choosing an English major is the same argument that enticed me to the field when I was an undergraduate — the way in which it opens up the world. Studying English cultivates your curiosity and gives you the critical reading skills, research expertise, and writing tools to adapt and learn throughout your life.

When I wondered how the rush to hunt for dinosaur bones in the late 19th century impacted theories about evolution and extinction, I researched and read critically — and found answers. Better yet, I found more questions.

So why should you major in English? Here are my five reasons:

  1. Knowing how to think critically is always valuable

    While vocational and technical skills will have changed in a decade, the skills in problem solving and critical thinking will prevail, David Deming writes in his fall 2019 New York Times article, “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure.” Research shows that the communication skills “built through dialogue between instructors and students, and through close reading and analysis of a broad range of subjects and texts” are most desirable, he notes. Demings, of course, points out that most folks who choose English do so for more than vocation, choosing a field that emphasizes “the development of the whole person,” and I agree.

  2. English majors are versatile and can adapt to change

    The development of the whole person means being adaptable, and research and critical thinking skills foster that. If I can read critically, I can teach myself new skills and solve new problems. Think about what that power to learn and adapt means in careers, relationships, and personal growth. About half of English majors double major in secondary education and go on to teach in high schools (currently in demand in Illinois and with good pay) and the other half go into diverse careers — writing, editing, legal professions, library sciences, teaching, marketing, and non-profits. Our recent graduates have options not only for what they choose to do directly after graduation, but also for the careers they will grow into throughout their lives.

  3. Great communicators have influence

    An English major also helps you forge connections through writing and reading. The better you can communicate, the better you can connect and share all the great ideas you have and the change you want to make in the world. If you are clear and write with a real understanding of your audience, you create human connections and influence change.

  4. Reading fiction develops empathy

    And, further, perhaps uniquely garnered from an English major, reading develops empathy, especially reading fiction. Research shows readers may develop more empathy than others. Even if characters are fictional, their authors aren’t. Reading is a way of understanding someone else’s experiences. Perhaps the closest I can get to understanding what it is like to be someone else is in a fictional account that engages me and makes me care. As British journalist Claudia Hammond writes, “Bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”

  5. Language is powerful

    For me, books were always ways of finding connection through adventure. As a child, I moved a lot, and books often felt like friends. (Have you ever had the experience of missing a character when you finish a book, wondering how they are doing in their world?) I could find comfort, no matter our new locale, in the pages of a book. I have been transformed by Siddhartha, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Tracks, and Native Son. Think about the power of that…the impact of words.

More than just any career, an English major has a special capacity to transform you, to cultivate your curiosity, and to give you the means to feed it. As Fredrick Douglass wrote, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Bridgitte Barclay, PhD, is associate professor of English and chair of the English Department at Aurora University and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Her book, Gender and Environment in Science Fiction (2019), co-edited with Christy Tidwell, just went to paperback, and she just published a chapter in Fiction and the Sixth Mass Extinction: Narrative in an Era of Loss (2020). She is currently writing an invited reflection for Journal of Science Fiction’s Special Issue on Environment and is editing a special issue of Science Fiction Film and Television on environmental creature features.