When meeting new people here at Boston College, most of us ask (and are asked by others) the question “what’s your major?” It’s generally just small talk, harmless enough, but as one of the first things you ask someone, or tell someone about yourself, it tends to carry weight regarding first impressions.
This isn’t always malicious. For example, if you hear “English major” and think “likes books,” well, you’re probably right. At least, you’d hope so, or someone is going to have a difficult time. If you hear that and think “teacher” or “lawyer,” you’re certainly generalizing but haven’t done anything mean. Personally, it’s something of a pet peeve of mine when people assume I want to teach on the basis of my major, but it’s not baseless; English majors do frequently become teachers.
I also find I get a lot of questions about what I’m planning to do with the degree, often with the underlying assumption that I won’t be able to do much of anything at all. Is this annoying? Sure. However, I’m well aware there are safer roads to a career and that such questions and comments—from friends, relatives, acquaintances and what-have-you—are born more out of concern than malice.
And we’ve all heard the song that so effectively pokes fun at the English major.
Hysterical as this is, its humor relies on the faulty assumption that everyone who sets out in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree is a careerist and that the only justifiable reason to pursue a liberal arts education is to improve your career prospects; that there’s no other motive to do so.
But a joke’s a joke and I love Avenue Q.
Now, here’s where it gets nasty: if you hear “English major” and think “dumb,” “lazy,” or “useless,” you’ve made assumptions about someone’s value as a person on the basis of their choice of study. Really, the only conclusion you can draw about someone on the basis of their major…is their major. You can study anything and be an intelligent, thoughtful person. Conversely, you can study anything and learn absolutely nothing.
On the subject of “intelligence,” reading and writing—the sort of work called for by the English major—draws on different faculties than more mathematically grounded fields, but the people who think in this way are not necessarily less intelligent than their left-brained counterparts. (Incidentally, the whole left-brain/right-brain thing is, if not an outright myth, greatly oversimplified and exaggerated. You know where I read that? In a book. Then I checked other books, because I’m an English major.)
There are multiple kinds of intelligence and each serves their own purpose. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world without doctors, engineers and other scientists who work tirelessly to improve our quality of life. But how bored would we be without our artists and writers?
It’s not something I’d care to think about, but if education—and society in general—continues to privilege one set of skills as the definitive standard for intelligence, that day may yet come. There’s a good reason some of us dedicate four years of our lives to developing these skills.
Some food for thought:
This video raises many more questions about education than I can address here without straying too far from my original purpose, but it's worth your time to check out and consider.
On to the “laziness” stereotype. It’s no secret that it’s harder to get good grades in some majors than in others, but that shouldn’t stop you from applying yourself fully to whatever it is you do. Laziness can manifest itself in any field of study.
If you’re an English major, there solely to coast along and get average grades you should be ashamed of yourself. If you’re a Chemical Engineer, and you’re hiding your poor work ethic behind the rigor of the program, chalking every failure up to the coursework’s difficulty, you, too, should be ashamed.
Another pet-peeve of mine concerning the stereotypes of my chosen major is that I’m a bit tired of hearing how we English majors are “hipsters.” I won’t deny that our department has no shortage of people who love scarves, wear horn-rimmed glasses, drink lots of coffee and have obscure musical tastes. I can’t. I fulfill most of those criteria all by myself.
But so what? As Emily Akin pointed out when discussing Boston College’s prep label; commenting on a given culture and its tendencies is not in and of itself insulting. The problem arises when people assert that these tendencies are flaws.
What’s more, English is often (and correctly) described as a “major major.” People from all walks of life and of all kinds of interests converge here, likely because of the expansive nature of the major, and of literature in general.
These stereotypes are in and of themselves just a nuisance. Honestly, a part of me feels guilty for taking so long to spell this out. After all, it’s tough to write about stereotypes without reinforcing them.
There is a bigger problem here, though. I’m writing this in part because I recently overheard someone at BC telling a younger student not to major in Communications exclusively because people would think she isn't smart. In my mind, that’s never a good reason to do (or in this case, not do) anything.
It got me thinking: why do people think that way? Should this student be shamed by others on the basis of her major before having a chance to prove her interest in, aptitude for, and intentions with it? Of course not. She should make an informed decision on what she wants to do, and that will not happen on a campus whose culture shames people away from certain options.
I’m an English major and best equipped to comment on the stereotypes I confront, but there’s a larger battle to be fought here. I will not assert that English major stereotypes are the only—or even the worst—stereotypes floating about campus. There are plenty of majors who get a worse rap than English, such as the aforementioned Communications major.
I also don’t mean to paint a picture in which humanities majors are the victims of bullying by elitist jerks from the sciences. Not at all. Hurtful stereotypes aren’t solely perpetuated by students outside the humanities; in fact, students in the sciences put up with different (but still inaccurate and offensive) labels. A separate article could be written on these.
I’m not here to tell you all majors are equally rigorous. They aren’t. I’m not going to tell you that all majors are of equal economic worth. Nope; whether or not it’s fair, society rewards some fields of study over others. Even certain academic institutions promote some fields over others, as Natalie Roy pointed out here.
I’m not even going to tell you pursuing your passions is more important than making money, which (forgive my assumption) is probably what you expected me to say. I certainly feel that way, as you’ve probably gathered from the foregoing comments, but I don’t feel qualified to lecture you on that. Tempted as I may be to trivialize financial matters, they aren’t trivial.
I’m only here to tell you that we’d have a happier campus if everyone felt their fields and talents were valued. If we want to live in a society in which everybody’s given the opportunity to play to their talents and interests, free of shame or judgment, it begins here. Whatever you are, you can be a good one.