Yesterday I spent eight hours or so watching Doctor Who. Sitting at my desk I can look out into the well-manicured, beautiful green lawn hemmed in by a brick wall in the backyard of my residence at Oxford, where an old aspen tree sways almost with caricatured British gusto. As I was watching Doctor Who I’d look out occasionally at the lawn and aspen, and I would wonder how I came to this place. There seemed to be a mismatch between what I conceived I should do and a sense of total inertia. If the world was filling with smells and sounds and a melancholic autumn breeze wandering like a stray cat through the streets, I wouldn’t know; I was too busy watching the Doctor save the world.
Is plunging eight consecutive hours of my life into Doctor Who a worthwhile endeavor? That shouldn’t be a question, but as I’ve committed the act already, it’s something worth asking, because it points to something more profound: purpose. Given a finite lifespan, a limited amount of energy, and a world of increasing possibilities, navigating through the thick ocean of life with a specific direction is a difficult thing to do. I don’t know about you, but I often lose sense of where I’m going. I can hardly check my email without watching a few YouTube clips, let alone set sail for a day, a week, a year, a lifetime. In a hyperbolically interconnected world, screaming with commodities and entertainment, topical pleasures, and thousands of different ways of living, it’s more difficult than ever to sit down and aim for fulfillment—to aim for what Plato called “eudomonia,” or human flourishing.
With this in mind, I think it would be wrong to situate the worth of an English degree in preparing us for “career opportunities.” I know some people who talk about the degree’s valuable flexibility, about the skills they gain in editing and critical thinking, but I think I’ll have to politely disagree with them. All of these skills are good, but that’s not what an English degree is good for. In my opinion, its value has everything to do with understanding why we live and how we should live, rather than preparing us with mechanical skills used in an uncritical life. You don’t read Walden in order to work at Goldman Sachs; you read Walden to articulate to yourself whether or not working at Goldman Sachs is something you could conceivably do while living a full life.
So, my plug for UMass English: even while helping me refine how I write and think—even while helping me develop those always necessary skills I’ll use in Oxford—the departmental courses I took challenged me to a critical awareness, in a way I don’t think any other degree can. How I live my life, and how I articulate the problem, superseded whatever practical skills I might have gleaned from any other degree. If there are days spent watching Doctor Who, I can at least hope they’re coated in critical self-reflection, so that tomorrow when I wake up I’ll instead spend eight hours reading Dombey and Son in the University Park, eating a falafel baguette, flourishing.