Take English majors out of the punchline

What’s the difference between an English degree and a box of pizza? A box of pizza can feed a family of four. Never heard that one before? Make sure you add it to your repertoire. I hear it’s a big hit in the science social circles. However, those who laugh at the study of English are proving that ignorance is in fact very much bliss because it just so happens that the study of language and devices in literature is integral to synthesizing and being able to explain knowledge in all fields.   An essay by the poet Robert Frost, entitled “Education by Poetry,” explores this very notion, focusing on the idea that every discipline requires a firm grasp of metaphor, which is primarily a literary skill.   He explains how we all talk in metaphors: “People say, ‘Why don’t you say what you mean?’ We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections — whether from diffidence or some other instinct.”   You needn’t look further than your average science textbook to see that Frost is very much correct. You’ll find abstract concepts explained through the adept use of metaphor at the turn of every page. Whether it be atoms that “want” to “trade” electrons, or pretty much every biological process being described as happening in a huge circle that features energy transfer, represented by little men pushing wheelbarrows of some kind of bodily molecule, it is a fact that we are prone to express ourselves through metaphor.   This is why it is necessary in the course of our education to pick up a good handle on the way these literary devices work, no matter what field one is in. The study of English also helps bolster the study of other subject areas on a more practical level. Maybe if scientists took more time to study sentence structure and great authors of the past, their writing wouldn’t be regarded almost universally as poorly organized, wordy tripe that people only read if forced to rifle through looking for facts. Frost’s point, and I think the point of all proponents of the study of English, to some extent, is that English is useful outside of trying to extract meaning from texts that the common science student is usually so ready to cynically denounce. “Well who cares if the Bard’s journey is representative of overcoming a long and drawn out struggle? This is stupid!” If you’ve taken an English class in the past few years of your schooling, you’ve undoubtedly heard a similar rant. Now, it may be true that the study of English doesn’t present to its followers a crystal clear career path, and it may also lend itself well as the butt of so many jokes at scientists’ cocktail parties – or whatever they do for leisure when they aren’t busy studying the “important stuff” in academics ¬– but in the end, English will have the last laugh. Because when you’re trying to find the right way to explain your groundbreaking new thesis to your fellow biologists, or when you’re trying to find the right inspirational metaphor to launch your budding political career, it will be the study of English that you will turn to help you carve the path ahead.