Anaphora, synaesthesia, pentameter... you learn some tantalisingly useless words during an English degree. I would recommend English to anyone; you get to quilt adjectives, mash up clauses, make sentences swagger and phrases pop like fireworks. You also get to read novels rather than 1980s textbooks. Yet any arts student will be quizzed on what they learned from their degree. You'll be pleased to know, it's not all poems and pansies, but practical life lessons too.
One thing an English degree teaches you is that you should know all words. Not for exams, but so that your friends don't think you're stupid, as in their eyes a command of your mother tongue is literally all you have to be capable of. So if you do make an inarticulate speech at your 21st, people will wonder whether you have any talents. Join a sports club to avoid this conversation. Nonetheless, if you still don't understand the semi-colon by the end of university then your tuition fees have probably gone walkies, probably on your science mates' weekly order of chemicals. This is where the English student learns 'irony'; despite making involuntary philanthropic donations to the Chemistry department, science students think you have an easier life than them. They are correct. Your timetable is a blissful hiatus between the real world and fantasy land. However, this can become a problem in third year when you're allowed to speak to your dissertation supervisor for approximately 30 minutes per annum and realise you have no idea what you're doing.
Along comes blagging. As long as you pluck out the phrase 'it's almost as if...' (it never 'is', that would be far too committal) in a tutorial, followed by 'I found this interesting...' (you don't need to know why) then you will be fine. An intelligent ability to 'wing it' will get you far in life. Whatever people say, blagging is a transferable skill. If you can sell the idea that 'his ebony and bony cat' is a phrase 'in which the cat's enigmatic nature is shrouded in echoing perplexity' then you can sell a product in marketing, an idea in production or even a career in politics. The world is your stone from which to procure blood. As people say, you can do pretty much anything with an English degree. It's just that statistically 'anything' tends to lean more towards 'waitress' than 'neurosurgeon'.
On a lighter note, English eccentrics are some of the best people in the world. Old school professors are highly intelligent, highly likely to bring chocolates to seminars and undoubtedly prone to coming out with blinders such as 'I love the skulls on your scarf, you've clearly dressed for Jacobean tragedy day!' or 'Poppet that seminar paper makes me want to crucify you!' or 'Then they had rather a romp, the little minxes!'. On that note, an English degree requires you to be able to discuss sex and any taboo with as much caution as you would the weather, so there's no risk of becoming a prude.
Your main educators are books. You learn lots of things from these nuggets of ink soaked thought; some profound, some simple;
- 1984 shows it's possible for pages to depress you.
- Oliver Twist teaches you that the original text often differs from adaptations. Cheeky Fagin in the musical certainly wouldn't pass a CRB check in the novel.
- Jane Eyre and Great Expectations demonstrate that the Victorians were a little doolally. In the former a foreign woman is locked in an attic and deemed insane, whilst in the latter an English lady locks HERSELF in an attic, refuses to change out of her wedding dress and yet is queen of the castle.
- Robinson Crusoe is testament to the fact that a man confined to his own company for a certain length of time should not be allowed to publish his experiences. Certainly not without punctuation and chapters.
- Richard II can very easily look like Richard III when scanning a reading list. These are in fact very different plays and comments such as 'bloodthirsty' and 'adulterous' will give you away quickly in a tutorial. Asking whether Richard II is even a play only exacerbates things.
- Most people who have been to a private school will have mastered the Deutsch-Welsh accent of Chaucer's Middle-English, rather than watched cartoons of the Canterbury Tales last period on a Friday. If you haven't done the same, you will look stupid at the weekly reading group. My best advice is to stuff a biscuit in your mouth just before your turn and make hand gesticulations rueing your inability to participate. Then pretend you have a hockey match and go and bang your head against the hand dryer in the toilet, in the hope it will concuss you in time for your exam the next day.
- Some pretentious drivel will make you lose faith in literature. But then you'll read some Seamus Heaney with words like 'jampotfuls' and 'gargled' and all will be ok.
- Finally, critical reading. You can read the best book in the world, love it to pieces and then read a critical essay about how the protagonist subverted the neo-classicist BANG, your neck just lost the will to support your head.
Jokes aside, English is a brilliant degree. You get to pluck at history, play at drama and paddle in your imagination. Yet perhaps the most important lesson you learn is social. You deal with enough Count Foscos, Emmas and Daisys to realise what is unattractive and encounter enough Tess', Mr Thorntons and Elizas Doolittles to learn which human qualities are worth aspiring to. Not bad for an arts degree.