My Name is Joe Bob, and I’m an English Major

Reader

Well. Seems Joe Bob Briggs is torn these days. While repeatedly swearing his life long love for literature, he now claims it has no real-world value:

And eventually, if you study the data, which is what the Modern Language Association does, you have to reach the conclusion that studying English is good for…nothing. …

I’m racking my brain. I’m trying to come up with justifications. I’m trying to figure out some way this translates into “Yes, you are now prepared for life.” But alas, these modern students who thumb their noses at English are correct. It’s good for nothing. It has no practical value whatsoever.

Wait — NO practical value? C’mon, Joe!

Briggs laments that many of today’s college students aren’t even considering majoring in English, and are instead flocking to more “practical” courses of study. No doubt a degree in accounting or math is more marketable these days. But to dismiss the study of literature as having no value is wrong, wrong, wrong.

We could argue that learning how to interpret complex texts has significant value in a technological world. We could talk about the crucial role of reading in improving one’s social intelligence, making one more adept at working with others, or how reading helps one form a robust and informed worldview to make sense of one’s place in the world. Or how fiction in general, and science fiction in particular, opens one to spiritual insights that can make you a happier, and therefore more productive person.

But if you insist on focusing only on hard science, we’ve got you covered. Scientists have solid evidence on the link between reading and general problem solving skills. The act of reading itself builds “white matter” in the brain that boosts its ability to recognize patterns and imagine new scenarios. The importance of reading in nurturing general intelligence is beyond dispute:

But in today’s world, fluid intelligence and reading generally go hand in hand. In fact, the increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in schools may partly explain why students perform, on average, about 20 points higher on IQ tests than in the early 20th century. The so-called Flynn effect is named after James Flynn, a New Zealand professor who has devoted much of his career to studying the worldwide phenomena of increasing IQ scores.

Knowing technical details is important, but developing the ability to use technical knowledge in new and creative ways is critical.

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14 thoughts on “My Name is Joe Bob, and I’m an English Major”

    1. Mike and Sue, I think the reading of ‘more than just the words on a page,’ is what shows not only intelligence, but better decision making. That’s why English majors are needed. I majored in Fine Arts with a minor in English and have never regretted it–well, maybe the paychecks 🙂 — but the life lessons I learned through assessing the meanings behind both Art and Literature are invaluable. Thank you for bringing this up, Mike.

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  1. Mike: Thanks and great post – just one comment. I think you may be conflating two premises. I think the primary premise in Joe Bob’s post in not that the study of English Literature is useless in general but that it’s useless from a marketability perspective. While I agree with you that the study of English literature helps develop useful real world skills – I have to given that I majored in Humanities and have benefited in many of the ways you’ve described – I also agree that an English Literature Major as an Undergraduate Degree is not particularly useful for a young person thinking of entering the modern economy – also consistent with my past experience of using my study of Humanities as a preparatory experience for my post-graduate study of Law. I continue to be thankful for the multi-disciplinary Humanities education I received through the Plan II program at UT – it made me a better thinker and writer. It also gave me a framework through which to approach, deconstruct and solve real world problems. I also have to admit that it wouldn’t have been particularly useful from a purely professional perspective if I hadn’t used it as a stepping stone to Law School. I would have been competing at a disadvantage for entry positions at employers looking for more specialized educational backgrounds. I wish more employers put greater emphasis on the strengths we both value but the current recruiting approach used by most employers just aren’t designed to do so. Given the crushing cost of a college education today and the need for all too many young people to finance it by borrowing, they’re forced to think of this choice through the lens of return on investment. Not a criticism – just an opinion. Have a Great Weekend. Brian

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  2. Working with adolescents in a school environment, I’ve seen firsthand how reading fluency — or lack of same — affects performance in subjects like math, science, and drama: areas that are often considered somehow separate from English.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Awesome post. I’ve always believed that no one has a “natural” intelligence. It all depends on how much one reads. Also, that’s good news about the students testing higher than the scores from a hundred years ago. I’m not very knowledgeable on the subject, but I’m glad that intelligence is rising at least within academia. The media makes it look like most of the public don’t care much for learning. Celebrity culture, etc….

    Liked by 1 person

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