by David Safier
I read an article in today's NY Times about dot-com billionaire Jack Ma, who created China's Alibaba Group, which is "China’s largest online retailer, with merchandise volumes that lag only Walmart, worldwide." Before he was a billionaire, he was an English teacher.
Which got me to thinking about that much maligned college major, English, that "useless major" which produces a bunch of ne'er-do-wells who become English teachers (guilty as charged) and low wage salary slaves in dead-end professions. So I put the research skills I honed as an English major to work — I was able to transfer them from the library and the printed page to the World Wide Web thanks to the mental agility I picked up as a lit critician — and searched for English majors who have moved beyond their expected confines.
It shouldn't be surprising that lots of songwriters were English majors, like Mark Knopfler, Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson (who was about to become an English Lit teacher at West Point when he decided to pursue songwriting instead) and Chris Isaak. Sting's training as an English major and English teacher is all over his work. He referenced the Odyssey in his song, "Wrapped Around Your Finger" ("Caught between the Scylla and Charibdes"). And he named one of his albums "Ten Summoner's Tales," punning his name, Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, with the character in The Canterbury Tales, The Summoner.
I guess Conan O'Brien shouldn't be a complete surprise either. But an English major at Harvard, whose senior thesis concerned symbolism in the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor? Who knew?
Bob Woodward and Barbara Walters? Journalists. Makes sense. Steve Spielberg? Not much of a stretch either.
But (wait for it . . .) Mitt Romney? He was an English major at Brigham Young University. And Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (English major at Holy Cross College)? Look, they can't all be gems.
Governor Mario Cuomo is another English major who made good.
In the business world, there's Grant Tinker (CEO, NBC), Andrea Jung (CEO, Avon), Anne Mulcahy (CEO, Xerox) and Judy McGrath (CEO, MTV).
Continuing the list: Actors Katharine Hepburn, Alan Alda, Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster, Emma Thompson, Matt Damon, Carroll O'Connor and Emma Watson; Dr. Benjamin Spock; biologist Rachel Carson; Physicist/Astronaut Sally Ride.
The name for Starbucks (a ship's mate in Moby Dick) came from a brainstorming session of its three original partners, one of whom was an English major, another a history teacher. Its logo is a Siren (back to the Odyssey).
As for those of you who have a deep and abiding love of literature, who can write with a reasonable level of organization, style and grammatical accuracy but went in other directions in your college education, you may owe a bit of thanks to the English majors who decided to make their living as poor (or at least not wealthy) but honest (mostly honest, anyway) English teachers.