My favorite currently-broadcasting TV personality, Stephen Colbert, recently made a great joke on his show.  Well, they’re all great, but I particularly liked this one:

“If I wanted to throw away my kids’ college education money, I’d do it the old-fashioned way – by encouraging them to major in English.”

Of course I laughed.  It’s not like I haven’t heard it before.  Plus, I’m a Chicago Cubs fan.  I’m used to taking the easy punchline.

During my junior year at Northeast Missouri State U. (now called Truman University), another student and I were chatting in the hall between classes.  He told me he was majoring in business and wanted to make a lot of money.  Then he asked what I was majoring in.

I said, “English.  I’m planning on being a teacher.”

A puzzled look crossed his face.  “But there’s no money in that.”

I chuckled and said, “It’s not about money.”

He just walked away, shaking his head.

But I don’t blame him for not getting it.  Most Americans feel the same way.  “You want to spend a goodly chunk of money getting a degree in your native language?  Man, good luck doing anything worthwhile with that.  Ever heard of ‘return on investment?’”

Most people think all we do is quote Shakespeare and go on about thematic elements in To Kill a Mockingbird and argue how some guy named “Vonnegut” was a genius.  (FYI – that’s usually only after several stiff drinks at a boring party.)

Oh yeah, and we’re all annoying grammar policemen.  And none of us has “real” jobs.

But I’ll tell you something about English majors.  Every one I’ve known has had well-above-average written and verbal communication skills.  They’re usually pretty smart and intuitive, too, because they read and analyze often.

I realize reading and writing aren’t most people’s idea of fun.  “That’s something they make you do in school.  Why would I do that now that I don’t have to?”

But think about writing.  At almost any job you may have, you probably have to write something at least once a day.  Even if it’s a brief e-mail reporting inventory levels in the warehouse or a question about an upcoming staff meeting or how you’re miffed that Mary in Accounts Receivable has been taking too many days off.

If your writing is full of misspelled words and horrid grammar and basically sounds like a slow chimp wrote it, people are going to notice.  They probably won’t say anything to your face, but they’ll sure question your intelligence behind your back.

I’m not saying you have to earn an English degree to write well.  I’m just saying that learning and possessing above-average writing skills is a big advantage pretty much anyway you look at it.  I’ve gotten companywide e-mails from CEOs and VPs riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes.  I’ve read them and thought, “couldn’t you have asked me to take ten minutes to proofread this so you didn’t look like as much of an idiot?”

I’ve always like to write.  I wrote my first horror/comedy story when I was four.  It was supposed to just be a horror story, but it turned out (unintentionally) more funny than scary.  I read because I like to learn and laugh and absorb unique writing styles.  I write because I have weird stuff in my head all the time and it seems a more legal and productive outlet than what many people with weird stuff in their heads sometimes do.

My job titles over the years: High-school English/Speech teacher, newspaper editor/reporter, editorial assistant, associate editor, editor, marketing copywriter.  All paid barely a living wage.

Do I regret any of it – or my choice in a degree?  Not a bit.

As a writer, I realize we can’t all be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or James Patterson or John Grisham.  Those are all talented people with great imaginations who, somewhere at the start of their careers, got lucky enough to have a publisher choose to not toss their manuscript into his/her overflowing trashcan.  But all dedicated and passionate writers, like anyone in any profession, have dreams.

So don’t be too hard on us English majors.  We followed (and are following) our hearts, like most college students do.  It’s just that our talents, as is the case with many talented people, happen to usually not bring in the big bucks.  I mean, I left teaching because I got tired of enduring a lot of stress provided by maladjusted teenagers while being paid just above minimum wage.

Maybe the college kid in the hall was right.  But then again, maybe he’s now miserable, stuck in his cramped cubicle somewhere, clawing frustratingly toward that corner office — while I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

And folks, please don’t make the “I’ll take fries with that, Hemingway” joke.  That one got really old around 1985.