The English Major. If Only. 

Opened book with light and letters coming from it

When the February 2023 New Yorker article by Nathan Heller declared the end of the English major, I shared this news with my students.  I also shared Jorie Graham’s Twitter post encouraging individuals to use the hashtag #iwasanenglishmajor, a feed that quickly filled with scores of English majors extolling the various career paths, and the key skills and experiences that they directly attributed to majoring in English.  As these debates were occurring nationally, I was teaching Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down in an upper-level English class on illness narratives.  The well-known, well-taught, and frustratingly heartbreaking story of Lia Lee is about a Hmong child who, as Fadiman diagnoses, dies from “cross-cultural misunderstanding,” not septic shock or noncompliant parents (Fadiman, 1997, 262). 

In the New Yorker essay, Heller writes that “in classrooms today, the initial gesture of criticism can seem to carry more prestige than the long pursuit of understanding.”  Students “critique something as ‘problematic,’” Heller suggests, rather than grappling “with what the problems might be” (Heller 2023).  My students and I had done such problematizing—identifying complexities and even contradictions, interrogating narrative stances—all important thinking work.  We had reached the final day of the story, reading more than 300 pages but also emotionally experiencing the story of Lia Lee, her family, and her doctors.  I had prepared other materials about US medicine, articles about racial disparities, health inequalities, definitions of illness that also suggested “cross-cultural misunderstanding,” and final theoretical approaches implicit in storytelling.  All vital issues to help us consider the narrative more deeply and the stories within the narrative. 

But the more I thought about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the more I realized that what I really wanted in the book was an English major’s perspective. Not only to critique the narrative intrusions of Fadiman, explicate the use of the Hmong folktales of Shee Yee, or consider the effect of using Hmong words and phrases sprinkled among the English language, I wanted an English major’s insight in the narrative to understand cross-culturally the real-world problems of real-life people. I wanted this to help provide my students with authentic experiences—embracing the implicit challenge of Heller’s article—when addressing the issues at the heart of Lia’s story of “cross-cultural misunderstanding.” 

To focus this conversation, I offered some choice phrases from Heller’s article and from Matt Pearce’s “Commentary: Go ahead and major in English. You’ll be fine!” published in The Los Angeles Times (Pearce 2023).  Pearce writes about the “radical subjectivity that is our birthright as humans, the burden we carry for all time,” a burden for which English majors are ideally suited to carry, and which they don’t even view as a burden. 

I also offered Martha Nussbaum’s “three capacities” that she argues are “essential to the cultivation of humanity in today’s world” (Nussbaum 1998): critical self-examination, perspective as members of the global human citizenry, and, to cite Nussbaum’s own description, a “narrative imagination,” defined as the ability to “be an intelligent reader of that person’s story.” 

Certainly, capacity here suggests the mental aptitude or skill that a person has to do or to know something—English, and all of the humanities, offer such capacities.  But I also am struck by how relevant the other way we define capacity is, such as when we talk about freezer space or building occupancy as the maximum amount that something can contain.  The story of Lia Lee, and so many like her, is one of loss and emptiness, missed understandings, uncapitalized opportunities, people who, despite wanting to do the right thing, were limited, and not operating at their—as humans—full capacity.   

Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down starts with a simple two-letter word—“If”—employed, as my students noted, to immediately establish the conditional terms of what we were about to read; there was more than one story that was being told and that needed to be told and heard. 

I asked my students to consider what might have been different if an English major perspective had been in the room on page 1.  Initially, my students addressed how the various skills and experiences English majors have could have led to different outcomes for Lia Lee.  They also clearly understood where the text’s communication had only been one-way—from the doctors to the Lees.  Facility with language, and a deep understanding of different types and birectionality of communication may have eliminated one significant obstacle the Lee family had in understanding the necessary care for their daughter.   

Beyond assisting with language concerns, the English major in the text could assist the doctors, who, in the words of my students, “succumb to myths and stories, leading to an inherent fear of the Hmong.”  This last comment began the shift from thinking about the English major as an effective English speaker or translator to the English major as both storyteller and story interpreter—as both writer and reader in the public’s domain. Even more, they understood that the healthcare exchange was a narrative story, and that they were ideally equipped to disentangle the inherent and historically transmitted belief structures contained within myth, and to explain, analyze, and interpret the stories for both sides of the exchange. 

Since The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a cultural artifact, my students suggested that the book requires both a good reader and a good writer.  I pushed them on defining “good” and was rewarded with discussions not of moral righteousness (though there was a place for that), but rather as a “good reader” and a “good writer” defined as someone who knows how to “privilege subjective narratives over notions of objectivity.”  Doctors, they added, “are trained to detach from people they are treating,” but instead, they should value the subjective perspectives that humans offer.   

The doctors weren’t the only ones who came in for such criticism.  Beyond the book, my students argued that all readers of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down need human, humanist, perspectives, too. People “need to know how to read,” they exclaimed, speaking volumes in a simple proclamation that was not about the actual act of sounding out letters on a page.  Rather, they articulated a highly sophisticated understanding of what it requires to critically and empathetically comprehend and interpret the meaning of the story called life and the characters in it.   

As is often the case in these days of questioning the value and role of the English major, our conversation did take a turn of sad resignation.  Even the “mediative presence” of an English major, they noted, may not change the environment, especially one so heavily circumscribed by powerful legal and medical systems.  “Would the outcome [for Lia Lee] be different?” if there had been an English major in the text, they asked—and they didn’t really need an answer.  One student noted that my prompt only allowed for one English major.  What was needed, they argued, were many, many English majors in the text, in all different occupations, who could share the perspective that English majors offer.   

Note, that I have not suggested every college student should, formally, be an English major, although more English majors at most colleges and universities would be welcomed. But I will suggest that every college student should strive to be an English major in the ways they think, the perspectives with which they view the world, and with a narrative imagination through which they are able to empathetically problematize and concretely respond to the problems in the myriad of texts in this world and its people.  They should aim and desire to live at capacity.  To do that, students—in all disciplines—need to enroll in courses that prioritize those human, humanistic, capacities.  And colleges and universities need to back up their mission statements with actions so that students, all of their students, have English courses to enroll in and an expectation to learn how to think like an English major.   

I take great comfort in my students’ responses.  They are resilient and clear-eyed about who they are and how they, as English majors, have the capacity to change the world in which they, and so many others, live. As for an English major in all of life’s stories? If only.   


Laura Behling’s interests and expertise are in 19-century through 21st-century literature of the United States, as well as literature and medicine, the health humanities, journalism, and science writing. Her scholarly publications include two monographs: Gross Anatomies: Fictions of the Physical in American Literature (Susquehanna University Press/Associated University Presses, 2008) and The Masculine Woman in America, 1890-1935 (The University of Illinois Press, 2001). In addition, she has edited and introduced two texts: Hospital Transports: A Memoir of the Embarkation of the Sick and Wounded from the Peninsula of Virginia in the Summer of 1862 (The State University of New York Press, 2005; Paperback, 2006) and Reading, Writing, and Research: Undergraduate Students as Scholars in Literary Studies (CUR [Council on Undergraduate Research], 2010). As a Fulbright Scholar, Behling has taught at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, and served as a Fulbright Senior Specialist at the American University of Bulgaria in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria.

References:

Fadiman, Anne.  1997. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Heller, Nathan. 2023.  “The End of the English Major.” New Yorker.  February 27, 2023. 

Nussbaum, Martha. 1998. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Pearce, Matt. 2023.  “Commentary: Go ahead and major in English.  You’ll be fine!” The Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2023.