Why Are English Majors so Pretentious?
Their use of the word “unpacking” might have something to do with it.
By Lauren Diethelm, University of California, Santa Cruz
Survey a classroom of high school English students, and only a handful of them will say they actually enjoyed any of the assigned reading.
An even smaller handful will admit to liking Shakespeare. These are the kids who spent their childhoods reading instead of playing sports, and wishing they were anywhere else on the planet instead of remedial math. They are also the ones that go on to be literature majors.
I am living proof that what I just said is true, as is my roommate and most of our friends. We’re social enough on the weekends, but mainly with each other, because meeting new people is hard, and “being social” is really just code for watching Netflix and eating cookie dough in our pajamas. In my almost three years of various literature classes and avid people watching, I’ve decided that two types of people are drawn toward this major: introverts and assholes.
Introverts becoming lit majors makes a lot of sense, at least to me. When the real world and real people don’t cut it, turn to the much easier, much safer written alternatives. What stumps me, really, is what it is about this major that calls out to pretension in people and makes them think they’re suddenly better than everyone else. I’ve thought about this question a lot, both in the writing of this article and just in my life in general, and I’ve come up with a few possible answers.
It’s All in Your Head
Whatever aspect of the field you’re involved in, whether it’s unpacking theory, creative writing or simple analysis, it’ going to be very cerebral. Not that other fields aren’t, but there’s much less tangible applications of literary theory than, say, chemistry.
Maybe if we could blow stuff up every once in a while, we wouldn’t have such big sticks stuck up our butts. Spending so much time in your own head can either make you feel like there’s nothing in it at all, or like there’s so much that no one else can possibly understand or compare to your knowledge.
Exclusive Rights to Meaning
People either just get literature or they don’t, and if they don’t, there’s sometimes a little bit of awe for the people who do. My sister, for instance, while definitely one smart cookie, takes after our dad and excels in math and science, and has to call me on almost a weekly basis to help her with English assignments.
I know she’s smart enough to do it on her own, and really I know that she knows it too, but analyzing novels is a lot less concrete than answering a math problem, and that uncertainty throws people off. Having people constantly defer to your opinions on the meaning of the work as a whole can make you think that maybe people should defer to you, all the time.
A B.A. in B.S.
In a similar vein, people constantly believing your bullshit is as good an ego boost as any. Any good literature student will tell you that they make up everything. And actually everything, not just most things that I’m going to call everything for convenience. I’ve written entire papers where I did not believe a single word of what I wrote, but fake it till you make it, as they say.
What all these things boil down to is that the most pretentious literature majors think that their opinion is more valuable than every one else’s. My roommate and I take a lot of the same classes, and we have a game, almost, of identifying the most pretentious person in every class we take. This is mostly so we can avoid that person at all costs, but looking back at all of our winners, they have several things in common. They all talk too loud, which is probably more of a personal pet peeve than anything important, but they also all make a point to disagree with everything anyone else says ever.
The likelihood that they actually have a different opinion than everyone all the time is, I think, rather slim. The amount of energy alone required to do that is beyond human strength. But somewhere down the line people got the idea that disagreeing means proof of independent thought, that to agree with what someone else says means you’re not as smart or as dedicated as someone who did come up with a new thought.
Here, perhaps, I should make it clear that while I’m all for independent thought and new ideas, sometimes the old ideas are perfectly good, and coming up with forced new ones just makes you look desperate. There are only so many ways to analyze a book like “The Great Gatsby,” which is not really that deep to begin with, before it becomes obvious that you’re making it up, and, dude, don’t give it away that we do that.
As fellow “Study Breaks: writer Daniel Nguyen so rightly said, “Lit majors being assholes scares people away from pursing the major.” It almost scared me away, and there is literally nothing else I would be capable of doing. The summer before my freshman year I told my family that I needed to start reading the classics, because people at school would have already read them, and I needed to catch up if I wanted to be able to talk to anybody at all. This ended up being far from the truth—the number of people I’ve met who have actually read all the books classified as “classics” is actually very small, because what is a classic, anyway—but I didn’t know that would be the case.
It’s almost easy for me to begin to fall into the pattern of assholery that some of my peers exhibit, but I try really hard not to, because I dislike hypocrisy almost as much as I dislike pretension. English departments all over the country are getting smaller as fewer students pursue degrees in the humanities, and while a lot of that obviously is affected by the job market, this problem is not helping.
Unlike other social issues visible in the college world that get written about, though, writing about and drawing attention to the fact that lit majors are jerks will probably not make them any less so. Despite that, maybe it will let incoming potential literature students understand that it’s really not you, it’s us. Don’t be scared off by cranky older lit students who drink too much coffee and think they’re the next Hemingway—in a few years, that could be you.