English Majors: The news is good

By Susan Andrews
November 4, 2011

Why major in English if you’re not going to teach? Dr. Rob Prescott, chair of the English department and professor of English at Bradley University, can provide you with dozens of reasons why majoring in this discipline can give you a competitive advantage in today’s dynamic marketplace.

When thinking about the skills acquired by an English major, invariably the development of strong oral and written communication abilities comes to mind. However, Prescott would argue that the answer is far from complete.

“Today’s English major has the opportunity to develop a complex skill set that includes differentiated analytical, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, research, computer technology and robust interpersonal skills.

“This skill set is not limited to English majors but includes psychology, political science, history and international relations, among others,” he continued. 

In his book, “Why to Major in English If You’re Not Going to Teach” (Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2010), Prescott quotes distinguished English professor Stanley Fish who in the January 6, 2008 edition of “The New York Times” questioned the questioning of the value of the humanities.

Fish said that the only honest answer to the question “of what use are the humanities?” is none whatsoever … “An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say.”

Prescott’s book contains an impressive list of successful government and business leaders who majored in English. These individuals, representative of only a few among the many, have brought their skills into the world and applied them to make a positive difference.

The impressive lists demonstrate the vast potential of an English major. Prescott said that English majors can and do become anything they want. In fact, he said that English [humanities majors] majors score higher than any other major taking the MCAT and this includes all four of the exam’s individual sections. 

Prescott added, “This does not in any way dismiss the vital importance of a business education which we encourage our majors to begin at Bradley, and that which they will clearly need to learn as their careers begin after graduation.”

In business and government, managers can train their employees on a multitude of skills and competencies, but not writing. An employer simply does not have the time or resources to give one-on-one writing instruction.

“English majors and their parents might ask what relevance and significance the major has today and question its worth,” Prescott said. “English majors do matter and there are jobs out there for them.” 

And they do matter: Prescott includes a comic ode from the Broadway musical “Avenue Q” (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) that begins with “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” and ends with “A diff’rence to the human race!”

Prescott said that the English curriculum hones critical thinking skills, spurs creativity and helps students to stand and deliver their ideas. “English majors think innovatively and compassionately, hone research skills, understand their audience and base decisions on appropriate and authenticated data.”

Students who possess a combination of technical and communication skills are particularly attractive to employers, Prescott said. “A wonderful example of this blended skill set is senior Amanda Wenger. After completing three years of engineering coursework, she switched her major to English,” he said. “Now in the first semester of her senior year, Amanda has been hired by Target Corporation as a management trainee, a position coveted by many of her friends.” 

“Aspects of the English skill set, as well as the quantitative skills I learned through my experience as a civil engineering student, were essential throughout the interview process at Target,” Amanda said. “The interviews required both technical and communicative skills to advance through the process. Thankfully, in my time at Bradley, I've had the opportunity to expand my knowledge of both skill sets.”

Prescott’s book provides valuable information about workplace internships, securing an entry-level job, developing a résumé and exploring career paths for the English major.

According to Prescott, the outlook for English majors continues to be good but the reporting of it is abysmal. He is spreading the word through his book and giving talks across the U.S. This includes an upcoming talk to an association of colleges and employers devoted to the development of internships in which he will address the nature of the liberal-arts skills set and the need for humanities.

Visit Bradley University’s Department of English website.