At some point between the formation of universities and the soaring cost of tuition prices, being an English major became stigmatized. The decision to obtain an English degree is often perceived as an irrational, dreamlike state, in which students believe the written word can somehow provide them a living, until they ultimately realize there is no sustainability in petty fantasies. In college, I even had a friend who'd whisper “English major” every time we'd pass a homeless person on the street.
Much like its companions in the world of arts and humanities – film, acting, photography and art history to name a few – an English degree is scrutinized under the assumption that it yields no monetary value. What about those lucky English majors who go on to make good money writing or editing, to run publishing houses, to help build multimillion dollar digital content platforms? What about the English majors who are simply happy every day because they get to do what they love? The consensus seems to be that those are just dreams only few will realize, so maybe there's no point in dreaming in the first place.
I haven't thought about the struggle I endured after switching to an English major in quite some time. College is now five years in my rearview mirror and, for the most part, things have worked out nicely since then. Although I was recently reminded of just how arduous it was explaining my decision to others during my junior year.
I was commuting from work when an advertisement for StreetEasy, the NYC realty site, caught my eye. Earlier this year, StreetEasy rolled out an admittedly clever ad campaign titled #FindYourFormula. The basic concept involves adding together or subtracting various factors to ultimately determine the perfect New York City neighborhood for prospective renters. The appeal of the campaign is that it chooses not to shy away from the absurdity that is living in New York City. Like the fact that rent is astronomical, square footage is harder to come by than a good dentist and you'll most likely need roommates.
Take the above ad for example. The average person who wants to cozy up in the West Village with outdoor space and accessible washer and dryer will have to share space with a handful of roommates to cover a rent price that would make more sense as a lottery winning.
If you want to pay a semi-reasonable price, well then you'll probably be shacking up in the East Village in a shoebox-sized studio apartment occupied by more than a few rodents and roaches. Good for StreetEasy for its whimsical candor and inherent knowledge that Manhattanites would rather pay to live in a decorated dumpster than move off the island.
Although one ad in particular, which featured an English major, didn't sit well with me. Like I said, it's been five years since my experience battling other people's mistrust and skepticism based on my choice to pursue an English degree, but it was a shame to see that the stigma attached to the English major was still being perpetuated. And in this case, printed across the walls of God knows how many New York City subway trains.
I mean just look at that English major in the ad, glowing with naivety. How smug of her to think her self-righteous interest in arts and culture have any place in a capitalist society. And wearing that beret in a questionably ironic way, baptizing herself in stained pages of poetry and 18th century prose, oblivious to the price of oil and the elemental makeup of the human body.
Symbolism doesn't exist in all facets of life and, one day, when she least expects it, she will realize her mistakes. The wind will howl outside her midtown apartment -- paid for mostly by her brooding parents -- and she will recognize it as a symbol for the laughter of all those who told her so.
And what a disappointment she will be to those hardworking parents. Look at them, working class and tired. Of course, she'll need them as guarantors; she studied English after all. Her parents are heroes for reaching into their pockets to support a daughter's ambition that will prove to be nothing more than reverie. A shape in the night that ends up being nothing more than a shadow. A dream that mirrors reality until you awaken. Don't even get me started on the fact that she's a woman.
My stomach turned even thinking about the interpretations people would conjure up after seeing the ad, even if unconsciously. What about that high school student who sees it during his commute to school? Or the freshman in college preparing to claim a major?
The ad is smart. It's memorable. And it's everything wrong with the way we drown artistic dreams under the weight of practicality.
When I switched my major from education to English, nearly everyone I knew replied with either "What are you going to do for a living?" or "Writing and reading are just hobbies." Sometimes they'd even add, "You're still just going to end up teaching, right?" I'm sure, at some point, someone even said, "Good luck finding an apartment in New York City." Most English majors could fill a novel with all the undermining career questions they've been asked by relatives and friends.
In most people's minds, I was a 19-year-old making a drastic decision. I didn't have an answer right then and there as to what would ultimately pay my bills, but I was clear-minded enough to know that if my professional future didn't involve writing and the publishing of other people's writing, it wouldn't be a future I'd be excited to call my own. Pursuing an English major, for me, was an opportunity to immerse myself in the material I cared about most. The choice was an easy one to make.
Seeing the ad on the subway that day surfaced a number of emotions I'd since forgotten. Mostly that creeping sense of uncertainty spurred on by other people's wariness. An uncertainty I constantly had to eradicate from my mind. I was also reminded of my friend, an actor, whose girlfriend continued to buy him books on becoming a doctor even after he announced his choice to pursue acting.
Why is it that some people suddenly think they can save other people with their own versions of rational thinking? Perhaps it's an unconscious attempt to hold others back. To keep them grounded so they don't succeed, in order to justify to themselves that taking a risk isn't worth it.
I recently received a call from a friend I hadn't spoken to in years. Back when we were close, we had identical aspirations and together we concocted the idea of giving in to the the perpetual ache that urged us to switch our majors to English. I followed through with it. He didn't. On the phone he told me he could easily see himself in my position if he had been willing to follow his heart years back.
I wasn't quite sure how to respond. I am in no way smarter nor more talented than he is. My journey since switching majors, which is far from complete, was a storm I know he'd be capable of weathering. A journey that was filled with dizzying unpaid internships, layoffs, heartbreaking failures and nights of disorienting angst. Luckily, it's all added up to some version of the professional life I'd hoped to have when making the decision to pursue an English degree and try my chance at writing.
I ended up telling him what I believe most: It's never too late.
All that we can do, English majors (and all the others who have taken a risk on what they desire most in life), is persist. Even now, people ask me how I'm able to support myself with an English degree, and this is after I've helped grow a digital publication that sold for $50 million and landed a book deal with a major publisher.
Luckily, the beauty of those people who are willing to take a risk for what they're passionate about is that they're not trying to prove anyone wrong. They're not even necessarily trying to prove themselves right.
They're simply trying, and that's more than some people will ever do.
Greg Dybec's collection of essays, "The Art of Living Other People's Lives," is available for pre-order.