Dispelling misconceptions and recognizing the profound benefits of an English degree
There are a few outcomes when someone finds out that I’m an English honours student. Some people will ask about my research interests or what kind of books I like to read, others will make some sort of joke about why I’m studying a language I already speak. However, the most frustrating comments are something along the lines of “You should probably change your major to something more useful” or “What is an English degree good for?”
In our society, there is a clear emphasis on areas like science, engineering, and business being more valuable or beneficial than the arts. This value is generally measured in the capitalistic terms of potential wealth and perceived economic benefit — but is this really how we should determine the worth of a degree?
Aside from the fact that telling me my degree is useless is disheartening, upsetting, and just plain rude, English is an extremely valuable area of study. Perhaps the most obvious benefit is offering the opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate orally and in writing. This is why many English graduates find themselves in teaching, publishing, and communications. Furthermore, an English undergraduate degree is also often the starting point for pursuing law school or a master’s program.
A common misconception regarding English degrees is that they just focus on the English language — but this is far from the truth. Rather than focusing on the study of language, most English courses focus on literature, spanning from the Bible to the modern day. This allows students to explore different periods of history, themes, values, and cultures, all through the analysis of novels, films, and games.
“To my mind, the primary benefit of studying literature is to engage the imaginative capacity of your mind,” says Dr. Corinne Bancroft, assistant professor and English Curriculum Committee chair at UVic. “While this may sound juvenile, the art of being human involves imagining how other people might think and feel. There are a lot of things wrong with the world we share … and the first step towards change is imagining how things might be different. I’m not claiming that any specific piece of literature has the answers, but reading deeply and broadly will definitely help you be the kind of person who can imagine those solutions.”
When asked what benefits an English degree may have for a future career, Bancroft stated that it doesn’t train you “for any specific job, but it is essential to all sorts of professions — especially those that involve leadership and critical thought.”
Despite these benefits, there has been a steady decline in the number of students studying humanities. According to Statistics Canada, post secondary students enrolled in humanities programs dropped from 334 701 in 2005–2006 to 248 319 in 2020–2021 — just under a 26 per cent decline over the span of 15 years. This is a stark contrast to the enrolment rates of other fields in the same length of time: business and public administration increased by 31 per cent, engineering and architecture increased by 34 per cent, and physical and life sciences increased by 40 per cent.
Unfortunately, these statistics are not exclusive to Canadian students. Since 2010–2011, the study of languages at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels has decreased almost 35 per cent in the United Kingdom. Likewise, according to an article published by The New Yorker, enrolment in the humanities at American universities has declined by 17 per cent in the past decade.
Despite interest in the humanities falling around the world, I have always loved reading, so pursuing an English degree seemed to be a natural course of action. Studying English literature has afforded me the opportunity of experiencing history through the literary world, while exploring the social and political contexts of the works. In conjunction with my history minor, I learned that just as history provides a background for literature, literature offers a unique perspective of history. Literature engages with the world’s social, political, cultural, and economic climates, which allows the reader to cultivate their wisdom and critical thinking skills.
Therefore, regardless of the unsolicited comments and “advice” I receive about my degree, I wouldn’t change the educational path I’ve chosen. I’d much rather pursue a career in something I love than be trapped in a job I don’t enjoy.