In Defense of Humanities Majors

by Casey Brown ’14

If you haven’t read the Crimson’s “Let Them Eat Code” article yet, read it now and weep. Not because it’s true, but because it gets it all wrong.

Rest assured, the last thing humanities majors need right now is the advice of group of two people in librarya computer-savvy Marie Antoinette. Among budget cuts and decreased student interest (Harvard itself had a 20 percent decrease in humanities majors in the last 10 years),  the humanities major has become a hot topic in journalism. Crimson staff welcomes the decline of  English majors. The payoff, they claim, is an increased focus on scientific research and the retirement of dying discourse.

Sadly, they’re not the only ones who seem to think that a major in humanities has lost its value. As an English major, I’ve had to fill in the blank for the following conversation too many times.

Person A: What’s your major?
Me: English
Person A (choose one, or, fellow English majors, add your own):
(a)   “What are you going to do with that?
(b)   “So are you going to be a teacher after you graduate?”
(c)   “Oh, have you ever heard of that song from Avenue Q? You know, ‘what do you do with a B.A. in English…”

Why strangers feel the need to compare me to a singing puppet with a “useless degree” I will never know. More importantly, however, why do the Crimson staff and others seem to think we’re better off eating JavaScript for breakfast than devouring literature word-by-word?

There has been a flurry of explanations. New York Times writer Tamar Lewin explains that the recession has ushered in a “shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground.” Practicality calls for pre-professional tracks or those with the established paths to success.

Employment anxiety is perhaps not unfounded. In 2010 unemployment rates nationwide among recent English major graduates was 4% higher than that of chemistry graduates (9.8% versus 5.8%). Jennifer Levitz and Douglas Belkin from the Wall Street Journal note that as the U.S. pours more attention into the global economic race, the “job market … is disproportionately rewarding graduates in the hard sciences.”

Supply and demand, explains the Crimson staff.

By now you might have started wondering what you’re doing listening to career advice from an English major. Run away! Run fast!

But my voice—and the voices of my peer English and humanities majors—is exactly what is missing from much of the discourse.

As Verlyn Klinkenborg from the New York Times explains, when it comes to discovering the value of an English major, “In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see – an answer that satisfies no one.”

Many proponents of humanities majors make broad statements that can’t encapsulate the diverse interests within English departments. Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker says all too simply, “So why do we have English majors? Well, because many people like books.”

But as Princeton students know, English is not reducible to a mere love of reading. The reason for studying humanities is not the same for everyone, and neither are our career paths.

No, English doesn’t offer a set career path, although many a successful career has started with an A.B. in English. We decided to be English majors for other reasons, only one of which may be the love of literature.

For Dixon Li, a senior in the English department and African American Studies department, English was not the clear first choice.

“I came into Princeton conflicted (like most people!) about what I wanted to study,” said Li. “On the one hand, I just wanted to read and write poems all day. On the other hand, I wanted to major in Public Policy and end up working on human rights legislation and advocacy for those displaced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Those interests, he discovered, were far from mutually exclusive. “A steady flow of classes on literature, philosophy, art, and cultural politics has since convinced me that an interest in social justice can, and historically has, kept good and necessary company with creativity,” he said.

For Li, the humanities presented a passport not just to literature but also to ideas. “As an English major, I’ve gotten the chance to dabble in, think through, take pleasure in, appreciate, and disagree with a bevy ideas from all nooks and crannies of History and the world,” he said.

Jenesis Fonseca, a senior in the English department and African American studies department, recognizes the chance to study the humanities as an opportunity.

“My journey as an artist and a scholar is intrinsically connected with the fact that my parents did not have access to a formal education,” said Fonseca. “Early on, I learned that reading and writing are privileges.”

For Fonseca, a co-founder and past president of Ellipses Slam Poetry Group, writing and sharing translate into a way to give back. “I feel like part of my responsibility in having these privileges is being able to research and make heard the voices and stories of people who don’t have the same opportunities,” she said. Her goal is to “keep writing and encourage others to write,” she said. “I could see that happening through the practice of performing poetry and teaching workshops.”

For recent alumna Christina Campodonico ‘13, an English degree is indeed empowering. When asked what she’s going to do with an English major, Campodonico responds, “What can’t I do with an English degree?’”

Since graduating  last June, Campodonico has put her English degree to work. “In the few months since graduation I have already worked as a development intern for a film producer, taught dance classes at my neighborhood studio, written educational materials as a freelance writer, developed two blogs, and become an online tutor” she said.

Campodonico also points out that, despite what the Crimson staff may think, technology is not going to supplant the humanities any time soon. “Technology may change as developments in STEM fields gain advancement, but the transmission of knowledge, from art to science, will always be valued,” she said. “The future of both the arts and sciences lies in how we can marry the two.”

She mentioned Princeton history professor Emily Thompson’s book about sound in New York City in the 1920s which came with an interactive website available to the public. “Because of her research a multitude of people, who don’t have access to an incredible resource like Firestone, can still engage with the past,” said Campodonico.

To scholars like Li, Fonseca, and Campodonico, English is about books—and so much more. Studying English remains a unique and valuable path toward understanding the world, delivering justice, and giving back.