What the Hell is the Point of an English Degree?

By Reader Ben Meredith on at

Hi, I’m Ben and during my five years at university I’ve learnt, errrm… something about communication?

Way back when, if I had been asked 'what is the point of an English degree?' I’d have probably espoused some aspirational gumpf about expanding my communicative skills in a way applicable to all walks of life, making me the perfect candidate for any job which involves... you know, writing or talking.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Applicable skills, nice degree, big fancy letters after your name. However the reality is that that’s pretty much utter drivel. What my qualifications earned me--apart from about £15,000 of debt--was the ability to use ‘espoused’ in a sentence. Such is the fate of anyone undertaking a degree which revolves around the written word.

Yet, I hear you ask, 'surely you must learn something worthwhile during those years?' Sure you do, at least I definitely did: I wrote essays, I read books and I did, in fact, develop those lauded communication skills.

However, I never actually needed to do those degrees in order to learn those skills. Apart from providing lots of books and a forum in which to talk to like minded people--to learn from one another and bounce around ideas--the university didn’t ever actually provide me with anything. Or, to be more specific, they never supplied me with anything I couldn’t get by other means.

Want to learn about experimental particle physics? Sure, go to uni… unless you have easy access to a particle accelerator. The same goes for the other more practical degrees, if you need specialist equipment in order to develop skills that only a university can provide, go to university.

The same applies for vocational degrees involving a high level of technical skill, or some element of ‘ratifying’ those skills through a legitimate organisation. Sure you could learn maths or psychology in your own time but if you don’t have a degree to prove at least a basic level of capability then you sure as hell won’t be able to get yourself an interview for any relevant jobs.

Such is another problem with an English degree: you really don’t need it to break into the industry, because the industry you’re interested in is that of being a writer. Words don’t care where you went, or whether you got a First Class degree or a 2:1, they just want to be written -- certificate or otherwise.

So what about something like journalism? Again this industry has its own vocational degree. You can get a BA in journalism or journalism studies and, not only will it help you learn how to write in a journalistic way (APA style and the like) but most importantly it’ll teach you the business of journalism. Same goes for publishing. What you need is the business knowledge, not the writing knowledge.

When you take a creative writing or English literature degree what else can they teach you that you can’t teach yourself? Nothing. How best can you learn how to write? By writing. What do you need to write? A working hand and a verdant mind, nothing more.

Of course, there’s more to those degrees than writing lessons. You learn about theory and different schools of thought, you read great works and analyse the hell out of them. But as I said before, you don’t need any help with that; really, all English seminars boil down to: “we’ve all read the same thing, let’s chat about it” and it isn’t necessary to do that in a classroom. Do it in a coffee shop, do it in your bedroom.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself one question when considering a degree of this type: “Do I want to teach this subject?” If the answer is anything other than a definite “Yes!” (and I’m including that exclamation mark in the requirements) then run. Run far, far away from the multiple years of pointless stress and overwhelming futility.

In a perfect world I’d go to university for a year, make friends, make connections, discover what it’s like to live without having family around to pick up after you--then drop out and actually pursue your career. Unfortunately pursuing a career in writing isn't likely to net you that much in the way of financial gain. Perhaps it will down the line, but definitely not when you start. You need to build a portfolio and contacts before people will start to trust you enough to actually pay you. Same goes for writing novels, comics and games, there will be a huge period of time when you won’t have anything to sell and even then, it may not end up selling at all.

So my advice is get yourself some A-levels and find yourself a part-time job, spend just enough time making money to have some cash for fun and pay your parents a decent rent, then write, write, write, write, write.

Ben lives in Brighton and worries about narrative direction in video games. He writes a weekly column for Indiehaven.com and talks rubbish on Twitter @benrlmeredith

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