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October 25 2012

WSJ: Let's Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities

Charlotte Hays

Now here's something you rarely hear: “We need more English majors!”

English departments have long been languishing, and we English majors are the butt of jokes. Even President Obama, whose solution to everything is to Hire More Teachers, has never, to my knowledge, stood up for our forlorn field.  

So I was delighted to read Michael S. Malone’s piece in today’s Wall Street Journal entitled “How Do We Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities.” English majors are “exactly the people we’re looking for” a Silicon Valley entrepreneur told Malone. Malone recalls:

A few months back I invited a friend to speak in front of my professional writing class. Santosh Jayaram is the quintessential Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur: tech-savvy, empirical, ferociously competitive, and a veteran of Google, GOOG -0.45% Twitter and a new start-up, Dabble. Afraid that he would simply run over my writing students, telling them to switch majors before it was too late, I asked him not to crush the kids' hopes any more than they already were.

Santosh said, "Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I'm looking for." He explained: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up and getting into full production.

These days, he said, everything has been turned upside down. Most products now are virtual, such as iPhone apps. You don't build them so much as construct them from chunks of existing software code—and that work can be contracted out to hungry teams of programmers anywhere in the world, who can do it in a couple of weeks.

"And how do you do that?" Santosh said. "You tell stories." Stories, he said, about your product and how it will be used that are so vivid that your potential stakeholders imagine it already exists and is already part of their daily lives. Almost anything you can imagine you can now build, said Santosh, so the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent. "That's why I want to meet your English majors," he said.

I wouldn’t exactly call the Geoffrey Chaucer an English major but the poet and prominent fourteenth century diplomat illustrates one of my beliefs: a knowledge of one’s native tongue, with a smattering of foreign language skills, along with a grounding in philosophy, stand one in good stead for life. Chaucer was a member of Parliament and held a high position at court in addition to producing a seminal work of English literature.

Our colleges today are often described in terms that make them sound like glorified vocational training. Believe me, I know that graduates need to get out and find a job as quickly as possible. But I have long contended that a liberal arts education gives a grounding that can make one a valuable employee. Glad to see that Silicon Valley is recognizing the value of the major in English. 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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