The Ideal English Major


I read The Chronicle of Higher Education for work,  and I came by this most inspiring essay on The Ideal English Major by Mark Edmundson the other week. It’s been rolling around in my heart and brain ever since, and I wanted to share it with all of you other voracious readers. I think you would get it, even if you did not major in English in college.

The part that brings tears, and that I could not agree with more:

Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

Yes, exactly. Even though I graduated with my BA in English in 1991, I’m still many, many credits shy of my Becoming a Person degree (and if someone tells you they have their Becoming a Person degree — I bet they got it from a diploma mill!)!

I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m taking a course in the English department at the school I attend this semester:

Special Topics in Rhetoric: Community and Literacy

This course offers a hands-on encounter with the exciting and expanding field of literacy studies. In particular, we will explore what it means to be literate in the information age by studying practices of reading and writing, composing within and navigating digital environments, and negotiating local and global contexts of literacy. At the heart of this exploration, supported by a survey of key concepts and texts for understanding literacy, is a project in the collection and analysis of literacy narratives in collaboration with several community partners in Camden (in settings of schools, libraries, community centers). This activity both draws on and contributes to the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN @, a leading site for documenting our varied personal experience with texts of all kinds, from poetry to video games, from school projects to political activism. In taking this course, you will learn how to conduct team-based field research that contributes to our academic understanding of twenty- first century literacies as well as the vitality of civic life in Camden and South Jersey. (This course receives Civic Engagement credit).

I’m so excited too have this opportunity to work on my Becoming a Person degree this fall, as well as getting to work directly with people doing something that I think Matters. I’ll be sure to share this semester’s journey here on the blog.

I’m feeling a Dead Poet’s Society quote coming on!

(John Keating) We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?


  1. kravmarie

    I wish I could come up with a valid excuse to go back to school for literature. I have a BFA, but my heart was always in my academic electives (specifically literature and creative writing). It’s a shame I was too young and stubborn to realize this was an indicator that I should have transferred to a school that offered a BA.
    I love school and academia in general. If only it weren’t necessary to work for a living, or even if higher education were free, I would just go to school full-time, forever!
    It did, however, occur to me last night that I have reached an age where there are professors younger than myself (29) teaching college courses. This shouldn’t have come as a shock to me, but it did. Age-stuff doesn’t usually faze me, but… Ouch!

    • jackiemania

      I feel ya — I’m 44!

      I also work at a University and one of the benefits they offer is 70% reimbursement of tuition up to 12 credits a year at any accredited school. I don’t think I’d be able to afford to continue my education without this!

      What’s your BFA in? I work at an art school (and am nosy!)!

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