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The English Major Rambles

Oh, the rapturous higher plane of existence on which the ideal English major…what’s the word, something something, oh, let me just find a reality show to watch because I’m just a grubby economics major, rolling around on my piles of money:

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. “Life piled on life / Were all too little,” says Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

I’m guilty of saying I loved economics because it meant using math to explain people, but that was hyperbole. We get to use that, don’t we? The great unwashed?

I hereby summon one Bernardo Aparicio to rebut the claim above, that of one Mark Edmunson. And I don’t wanna hear no sass from any of you TAC types, you with your humanities degrees, and your writing implements, and your Kindles-used-for-books-not-sudoku-or-smut.

Hat tip to Cedar’s Digest, who asks Why Is the “Ideal English Major” uncurious and anti-intellectual?

If we are in the business of sharing the wonder of knowledge, then we need to drop the vague mysticism of “there are readers and there are readers.” Take a small drop of that celebrated imagination supposedly thought to dwell deep in the heart of every English major, and think about why economists might think their field is important.  Economics majors do not “live in facts and graphs and diagrams” any more than an English major lives in the alphabet. Economics is the study of human decisions. Someone who studies health economics or the effects of poverty or labor markets doesn’t do it because they enjoy the pretty colors that excel offers. They like finding patterns in human behavior. Sometimes they apply that knowledge so that more English majors can eat.  They are not doing this because they are soulless automatons.


  1. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    Prof Edmundson must be an economist at heart, because his essay is all about the problem of scarcity…


  2. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says


  3. I like to think – in the least offensive version of that word – that all economics must be considered in the context of gift. Not self-gift – that gives me hives – but just, well, gift. That, finally, there’s a certain knowledge that the English major can spring from the ivory tuna can which, after all, lets economists eat, or at least, according to Dr. Williams’s diagnosis, prevents them from starving…

    You will not find it there but in
    despised poems.
    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.
    Hear me out
    for I too am concerned
    and every man
    who wants to die at peace in his bed

  4. Hyperbole is the right word indeed, Expat!
    It is true that if you’re a econ, finance, mktg, or “business mgmt” major (the last one being almost as useless as English) you may tend to disregard the classes that are not related to your major as not as important. Most college students are at college because it’s the thing to do, not for some vaunted love of Porter’s Five Forces. The part about the businessman and “excellence, leadership, partnerships, and productivity” is particularly amusing because it’s mostly bull—- from a couse that was invented to fill a 3 credit slot. I’d prefer principles of management not exist and more English(or philosophy, history, art) be taught in it’s place but that’s just me.
    The reason I chose to pursue a profession with the noble title of count was not because I despised books, but because I wasn’t imaginative enough to enjoy the idea of writing for a living – and I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher, sound advice it may be from St Sir Thomas More.
    I suppose the first piece could be taken as a reaction against specialization with Enlish as some broad field in comparison. In reality, this just means the idea of being a Renaissnce man, whatever your profession, is not being considered by the author.

  5. Jonathan Webb says

    Thanks S.E.

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