Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Majoring in Creativity

            Salutations! Fans of E. B. White will know who I am channeling, and perhaps why. As we prepare for the start of the semester, now that I have been Head of the department for almost six weeks, I would like to take this opportunity to remind students, parents, and perhaps even colleagues about what it the programs in English and Creative Writing offer.
            After an economic downturn, the numbers of people who major in the liberal arts decline. It is understandable: people become practical, and that pragmatism makes them focus on the most immediate challenge: will this degree help me get a job when I graduate?
            Liberal arts advocates typically respond by enumerating the practical nature of the skills students acquire in their respective disciplines: in English, we stress the development of students’ analytical abilities, as well as their growing command of the English language, deployed with increasing precision and even eloquence. But there are other benefits that it can be harder to pinpoint: an education in literature can also be an exercise in self-development, self-discovery, and self-preservation. As the novelist Julian Barnes once wrote of Mauriac’s Mémoires intérieurs, “He finds himself by looking in the works of others.”
            Why be an English major? Why learn to read and understand the world’s most complex and beautiful verbal compositions in the era of text messaging and Twitter? What I am about to say next should be obvious, but it has been hidden in plain sight. The liberal arts, as the Latin word libera suggests, are the arts of becoming free (or a little freer). Why do we have to learn to be free? Because society conditions its members to conform (or to rebel, which is not freedom but a knee-jerk resistance to conformity).  The siren call to middle-class young people is to get a job, get married, and have children. Be a success; look attractive; make money. There is nothing wrong with those things, although the sixty-eight year old man sitting across from me in the Flying Machine coffee shop didn’t seem to read the script: he is knitting (very happily, by the look of it). Those who thoughtlessly heed the siren call of society run a risk—the risk of someday seeing those decisions as meaningless because they weren’t chosen but were simply adopted.  What matters most is not what you do but how you do it. Once we’ve learned to live in a given culture we then have to learn to live beyond it: to think independently, to feel for those who are foreign or different; to invent; to convey. Learning to interpret more autonomously can provide antidotes to the fear and knee-jerk obedience that can creep up in times of crisis. It is arguably in times of crisis that we most need “liberal” education, which can give us unexpected tools for creative problem solving. And creative problem solving can even be applied to the vexing challenge of finding a fulfilling job.
Learning to read literature has two major effects: it expands one’s horizons and it develops one’s intellect, emotions, and imagination. This isn’t a short-term effect; it is a long term one, and it is designed to help individuals live more fulfilling lives. When times are hard, people sometimes forget that life is a marathon, not a sprint. In his last play, Henrik Ibsen has one of his characters say, “When we dead awaken we see that we have never lived.” In his play Endgame, Samuel Beckett’s character Clov mourns, “The earth is extinguished, and I never saw it lit.” Why did women and slaves work so hard for the right to be educated? It was not only to have more job opportunities; it was to enhance their experience of life, to get a more realistic perspective on life’s problems and to appreciate its beauty and its fun. As Einstein once wrote, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” That is the primary reason to major in English, one that supports all the others: learning to read literature with precision and self-awareness kindles and then guides the imagination; it becomes possible to go anywhere. It prepares you, not to start a business or to build a bridge, but to find the extraordinary in the ordinary in any occupation or situation.