Recently I was asked to participate on a panel of professionals for the benefit of English Majors at Eastern Connecticut State University. The subject for the panel was in particular, what is the value of the degree beyond being a teacher. The following is what I wrote in preparation for the event and delivered via the answer to one of the questions:
First I have to say that I’m feeling so much joy being surrounded by people, both in the panel and the audience, who have a passion for words, because I believe that words matter, the words we choose reflect who we are and how we are perceived.
Personally, I count my English degree as the single greatest asset I have. I can’t lose it, it can’t be damaged or destroyed, it doesn’t grow obsolete or lose value, and it confers on me two great super powers. I’ll get back to those in a minute.
But first, what does it mean to study English? What is it you’re really studying? They call it the study of English because that’s the language we speak here in this country, but it’s really the study of the transfer of knowledge, concepts, and ideas from one consciousness to another via words. So, whether it’s someone speaking to you in the moment, or from an 1000 year old text, the author’s purpose was to communicate ideas through words. Our job as scholars of this process is to discover the meaning the originator intended. Because let’s be honest, it’s not a perfect process. Anyone who’s ever read Kafka knows what I mean. And so you pour over various books, and essays, and oral stories intent on discovering their meaning. You are always asking the question; what was the author trying to say? When you do that as often as English majors do, you develop two super powers.
Eventually, you develop the ability to discern an author’s meaning with very little effort and very quickly, even if the originator isn’t communicating well. You can pick up a manual for a technology you’ve never heard of, written by a guy in another country whose primary language is not English, and where other people might be totally confused, you know exactly what they were trying to say. You pick up on clues in the word choice, or the sentence structure, and piece together the meaning that was intended, regardless of what was actually written on the page! And so the superpower that comes from this is the power to learn. Getting an English degree taught me first and foremost how to learn. And with that power you can learn almost anything else, any career, industry or task, and you can learn it very quickly because you’ve practiced this process so much. You can find a book, or tutorial, or online resources, and with what seems like nothing more than the power to read, you can master the subject. With this skill, you can accumulate knowledge and skills far beyond the more narrow scope of other disciplines.
And as you accumulate knowledge, the second superpower begins to emerge. Your ability to originate the messages (the other side of the equation, if you will) becomes quite sharp. The writers you study write for an audience, and so they consider their audience through every part of the process. And you begin to learn incorporate this into your own messages. So whether you are writing an email or a report, or a training document, or trying to communicate verbally, you take into account your audience, and the position and experience they come from. You become so adept at choosing words that clearly and efficiently communicate your meaning, the understanding of it seems effortless to the recipient. And if they still don’t get your meaning, you are able to reach into their background, whether it’s their field, or industry, or just the common human experiences we all have, and you are able to put your meaning into contexts they can relate to, because you’ve spent countless hours pouring over allegories, analogies, metaphors, and similes. So it just comes natural.
So in gaining your English degree, you gain both the power to learn anything, and the power to teach anything. The power to understand, and to be understood, and that is what makes us mighty!