(Photo by August Jennewein)

Why Study English?

Seventy-five or a hundred years ago, that would have been an easy question to answer: the study of the Humanities, and literature in particular, acquainted us with “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” and that encounter was fundamental to a liberal arts education that prepared students to “[turn] a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” For the most part, this claim remains true; even as our notions of what constitutes “the best” and most interesting objects of study have evolved far beyond what Matthew Arnold might approve or even recognize, he would still find, in the contemporary English classroom, familiar and congenial efforts to undermine parochialism and challenge self-satisfaction in the pursuit of an informed and critical consciousness. This way of thinking about the role of the Humanities has a distinguished history, reaching from the Classical era to the contemporary classicist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for whom the “narrative imagination”—the capacity to be an intelligent, sympathetic, but also critical reader of someone else’s story—is the essential trait of the world citizen, living in a culture and an era apparently defined by its differences, but hungry still for justice and compassion.

But will your “narrative imagination” get you a job?  That’s a question that English majors hear pretty frequently these days, with the STEM disciplines apparently ascendant in higher education, and economists rather than poets serving as our unacknowledged legislators.  Of course, we English types don’t generally accept the premise that all education should be instrumental and vocational—that a college degree is basically an element in a job application. But if necessary, we can compete on that playing field too. In fact, when we turn a “fresh stream of thought” on some of the conventional wisdom that has grown up recently around the study of the Humanities, this is what we find:

So there’s an economic case for studying the humanities, and there’s an ethical one.  But there’s one more thing: the work itself is pleasurable and rewarding and sometimes just plain fun.  It introduces you to the unparalleled richness of British and American literature and the fullness and variety of human experience captured there; it invites you to appreciate and explore what’s true and beautiful, what’s sly and ironic and rhetorical, what’s moving and inspiring and appalling and satirical; it teaches you techniques of analysis and habits of mind that you will be able to call on in whatever you do, for as long as you do it; it gives you the tools to write long, stylish, paratactic sentences like this one, constructed from beautifully balanced parallel clauses and more than 115 words long; and it exercises parts of your brain that won’t get a workout anywhere else. So whether you’re already a Bardolater who celebrates Shakespeare’s birthday, or an aspiring poet, or someone who likes to think about both the big questions and the tiny details, you should come check out what we have to offer.


Frank Grady

Professor and Chair