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English majors: Forget what you think you know

Oct. 26, 2012 - 01:53PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 26, 2012 - 01:53PM  |  
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ENGLISH MAJOR HALL OF FAME

In his book, "Why to Major in English If You’re Not Going to Teach," Bradley University professor Rob Prescott included these in his English major hall of fame:
Writers
• William Peter Blatty ("The Exorcist" author)
• Philip Jose Farmer
• Joseph Heller
• Helen Keller
• Stephen King
Songwriters
• Don Henley
• Kris Kristofferson
• Paul Simon
Actors
• Alan Alda
• Chevy Chase
• Harrison Ford
• Paul Newman
• Joan Rivers
Sports
• John Wooden
• Bart Giamatti (former Major League Baseball commissioner)
Government
• Mario Cuomo (former New York governor)
• William O. Douglas

Rob Prescott figures he's heard all the snide remarks made about the jobs English majors (who don't plan on being teachers) can expect — from asking customers if they want fries with that to comments like, "At least you'll be able to answer the phone."

As chairman of the English department at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., Prescott says 70 percent of English majors wind up in business. That's according to the Labor Department and is just one of the facts culled from his book, "Why to Major in English If You're Not Going to Teach."

Prescott said his book, published in 2010, was a catharsis. "I heard it from parents, employers and others — why hire an English major? We (in academia) have not been responsible in giving an answer to that question," he said.

"The fact is that we impart an executive skill set that's profoundly useful and practical," Prescott said, referring to what an English major is capable of bringing to the business world.

"English majors work in almost every area of business, and many of them succeed extraordinarily," he said.

What English majors learn sets them up to achieve business success, Prescott said, noting that a common undergraduate major among the CEOs of Fortune 500 firms continues to be English.

"English majors read things. They think deeply about what they read. Then they share their thoughts with others in writing and in the spoken word," he said.

One need only look at the seal of Bradley University, developed in 1897, to see the importance of a well-rounded education, Prescott said. "The crafters placed ‘literature' at the bottom, at the fundament of the structure, flanked above on the left by ‘science' and on the right by ‘industry,'" he said.

"What the designers of the Bradley seal considered self-evident truth — the important relationship of literature to science and industry — has often been lost in our generation," Prescott said.

To help his English majors move toward a career, Prescott assigns each senior an annual project to come up with her own business venture or research concept. Some even turn the project into a real business venture, such as one student who was also a musician who created a website to help budding musicians make demo tapes along with getting information on booking and merchandise.

Another quality of the English major — empathy — is also an important business skill, Prescott said. "It's that quality of the human imagination that allows us to see what others see and to feel what others feel. Without empathy, a writer cannot match a message to an audience, nor can businesses successfully market their goods and services."

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