An image of Canadian Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau, accompanied by text noting that he has an undergraduate degree in literature, brought unprecedented attention to the Fordham English Department Facebook page this week. Within two days of its appearance, the post had been "liked" by over 6000 people, shared by almost 14,000, and viewed by over 2.6 million Facebook users.*
Department chair Glenn Hendler saw the image on his own Facebook wall, and took it as an opportunity to underscore a point English faculty make often, which is that studying literature can lead to a wide range of careers. As he posted later, "Just to be clear: this is not a political endorsement, or a claim that he got where he is just because of his English/literature major. But it's always nice to see English/literature majors doing well in the world!" However, he says he had no idea it would strike a chord with so many people, becoming by far the most widely-viewed item ever to appear on the department page.
Many of the several hundred comments on the department Facebook page--which are in multiple languages, and from all over the world--are clearly from English and literature majors sharing the meme with parents and friends in order to vindicate their choices. Some point out that while of course there aren't enough prime ministerial jobs for every English major, his election is just one of many pieces of evidence that majoring in English does not limit one's career options. Others have responded more sarcastically, claiming that Trudeau's success has had more to do with his good looks, political connections, privileged upbringing, and family name (his father was Prime Minister decades ago) than with his undergraduate studies. Canadian commentators in particular seem as politically polarized as are Americans, but the pleasure of English majors does cut across that polarization to some extent, as people who are clearly not Trudeau fans have responded positively to the post's message.
How this meme went viral is in itself worthy of some analysis! The image itself, with the text superimposed was created by Damian Fleming,** a scholar of medieval literature at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne for his department's Facebook page. Fleming says he was inspired by J. J. Cohen's post titled "Why the Humanities Prepare You for Most Any Future, Part the 1000th," which appeared on the "In the Medieval Middle" blog; it included the image Fleming used. Cohen's post may in turn have been inspired by a tweet by Shamma Boyarin--another medievalist, at the University of Victoria--that read "Get a BA in English Lit--maybe one day you will be the Canadian PM too."
Even if becoming Prime Minister of a G7 nation is not the most likely outcome of majoring in English, we hope you'll do so! And, if you already are an English major, we hope that this little image will give you one more reason to value and celebrate the choice you've made!
*As of Sunday evening, 10/25, those numbers are: 7653 likes, 17,666 shares, and 3,625,280 views.
**It turns out that the creator of this meme--Damian Fleming--is a Fordham alum! BA '98 and MA '99. So, very indirectly, Fordham *can* take credit for it! But he really deserves it.