The End of the English Major

From The New Yorker:

The crisis, when it came, arrived so quickly that its scale was hard to recognize at first. From 2012 to the start of the pandemic, the number of English majors on campus at Arizona State University fell from nine hundred and fifty-three to five hundred and seventy-eight. Records indicate that the number of graduated language and literature majors decreased by roughly half, as did the number of history majors. Women’s studies lost eighty per cent. “It’s hard for students like me, who are pursuing an English major, to find joy in what they’re doing,” Meg Macias, a junior, said one afternoon as the edges of the sky over the campus went soft. It was late autumn, and the sunsets came in like flame on thin paper on the way to dusk. “They always know there’s someone who wishes that they were doing something else.”

A.S.U., which is centered in Tempe and has more than eighty thousand students on campus, is today regarded as a beacon for the democratic promises of public higher education. Its undergraduate admission rate is eighty-eight per cent. Nearly half its undergraduates are from minority backgrounds, and a third are the first in their families to go to college. The in-state tuition averages just four thousand dollars, yet A.S.U. has a better faculty-to-student ratio on site than U.C. Berkeley and spends more on faculty research than Princeton. For students interested in English literature, it can seem a lucky place to land. The university’s tenure-track English faculty is seventy-one strong—including eleven Shakespeare scholars, most of them of color. In 2021, A.S.U. English professors won two Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other English department in America did.

On campus, I met many students who might have been moved by these virtues but felt pulled toward other pursuits. Luiza Monti, a senior, had come to college as a well-rounded graduate of a charter school in Phoenix. She had fallen in love with Italy during a summer exchange and fantasized about Italian language and literature, but was studying business—specifically, an interdisciplinary major called Business (Language and Culture), which incorporated Italian coursework. “It’s a safeguard thing,” Monti, who wore earrings from a jewelry business founded by her mother, a Brazilian immigrant, told me. “There’s an emphasis on who is going to hire you.”

Justin Kovach, another senior, loved to write and always had. He’d blown through the thousand-odd pages of “Don Quixote” on his own (“I thought, This is a really funny story”) and looked for more big books to keep the feeling going. “I like the long, hard classics with the fancy language,” he said. Still, he wasn’t majoring in English, or any kind of literature. In college—he had started at the University of Pittsburgh—he’d moved among computer science, mathematics, and astrophysics, none of which brought him any sense of fulfillment. “Most of the time I would spend avoiding doing work,” he confessed. But he never doubted that a field in stem—a common acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—was the best path for him. He settled on a degree in data science.

Kovach will graduate with some thirty thousand dollars in debt, a burden that influenced his choice of a degree. For decades now, the cost of education has increased over all ahead of inflation. One theory has been that this pressure, plus the growing precariousness of the middle class, has played a role in driving students like him toward hard-skill majors. (English majors, on average, carry less debt than students in other fields, but they take longer to pay it down.)

For the decline at A.S.U. is not anomalous. According to Robert Townsend, the co-director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project, which collects data uniformly but not always identically to internal enrollment figures, from 2012 to 2020 the number of graduated humanities majors at Ohio State’s main campus fell by forty-six per cent. Tufts lost nearly fifty per cent of its humanities majors, and Boston University lost forty-two. Notre Dame ended up with half as many as it started with, while suny Albany lost almost three-quarters. Vassar and Bates—standard-bearing liberal-arts colleges—saw their numbers of humanities majors fall by nearly half. In 2018, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point briefly considered eliminating thirteen majors, including English, history, and philosophy, for want of pupils.

During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined over all by seventeen per cent, Townsend found. What’s going on? The trend mirrors a global one; four-fifths of countries in the Organization for Economic Coöperation reported falling humanities enrollments in the past decade. But that brings little comfort to American scholars, who have begun to wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before.

If you take a moment to conjure the university in your mind, you will probably arrive at one of two visions. Perhaps you see the liberal-arts idyll, removed from the pressures of the broader world and filled with tweedy creatures reading on quadrangle lawns. This is the redoubt of the idealized figure of the English major, sensitive and sweatered, moving from “Pale Fire” to “The Fire Next Time” and scaling the heights of “Ulysses” for the view. The goal of such an education isn’t direct career training but cultivation of the mind—the belief that Lionel Trilling caricatured as “certain good things happen if we read literature.” This model describes one of those pursuits, like acupuncture or psychoanalysis, which seem to produce salutary effects through mechanisms that we have tried but basically failed to explain.

Or perhaps you think of the university as the research colony, filled with laboratories and conferences and peer-reviewed papers written for audiences of specialists. This is a place that thumps with the energy of a thousand gophers turning over knowledge. It’s the small-bore university of campus comedy—of “Lucky Jim” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—but also the quarry of deconstruction, quantum electrodynamics, and value theory. It produces new knowledge and ways of understanding that wouldn’t have an opportunity to emerge anywhere else.

In 1963, Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California system, gave a series of lectures subsequently collected in a famous book, “The Uses of the University.” He argued that both of these paradigms—the former largely inspired by British schools like Oxford and Cambridge, the latter largely inspired by the great German universities of the nineteenth century—had no actual equivalent in the U.S. Instead, he said, the Americans created the “multiversity”: a kind of hodgepodge of both types and more. The multiversity incorporates the tradition of land-grant universities, established with an eye to industrial-age skill sets. And it provides something for everyone. There is pre-professional training of all sorts—law schools, business schools, medical schools, agricultural schools—but also the old liberal-arts quadrangle. “The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself,” Kerr wrote.

. . . .

The multiversity does have a long project, though, and that is the project of opening itself to the world. In the nineteen-thirties, Harvard began making motions in the direction of socioeconomic meritocracy, significantly increasing scholarships for bright students. In 1944, the G.I. Bill was signed, bearing more than two million veterans into colleges and universities, the quickest jump in enrollment (male enrollment, anyway) on record. Between 1940 and 1970, the percentage of the American public that received at least four years of university education nearly tripled, sharpening the university’s democratic imperative. The student ferment of these years pressed for curricular reform, with the goal of bringing the university into greater alignment with undergraduates’ interests. Higher education was ever less a world apart and more a world in which many people spent some time.

For decades, the average proportion of humanities students in every class hovered around fifteen per cent nationally, following the American economy up in boom times and down in bearish periods. (If you major in a field like business for the purpose of getting rich, it doesn’t follow—but can be mistaken to—that majoring in English will make you poor.) Enrollment numbers of the past decade defy these trends, however. When the economy has looked up, humanities enrollments have continued falling. When the markets have wobbled, enrollments have tumbled even more. Today, the roller coaster is in free fall. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the percentage of college degrees awarded in health sciences, medical sciences, natural sciences, and engineering has shot up. At Columbia University—one of a diminishing number of schools with a humanities-heavy core requirement—English majors fell from ten per cent to five per cent of graduates between 2002 and 2020, while the ranks of computer-science majors strengthened.

“Until about four years ago, I thought it was a reversible situation—that those who profess the humanities hadn’t been good enough at selling them to students,” James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia, told me in his office one day. He had worried his graying blond hair to a choppy peak. Photographs of Shakespeare productions he has worked on were perched among the books on his shelves, which were close-packed. “I no longer believe that, for two reasons.”

One reason was the way of the world. Shapiro picked up an abused-looking iPhone from his desk. “You’re talking to someone who has only owned a smartphone for a year—I resisted,” he said. Then he saw that it was futile. “Technology in the last twenty years has changed all of us,” he went on. “How has it changed me? I probably read five novels a month until the two-thousands. If I read one a month now, it’s a lot. That’s not because I’ve lost interest in fiction. It’s because I’m reading a hundred Web sites. I’m listening to podcasts.” He waggled the iPhone disdainfully. “Go to a play now, and watch the flashing screens an hour in, as people who like to think of themselves as cultured cannot! Stop! Themselves!” Assigning “Middlemarch” in that climate was like trying to land a 747 on a small rural airstrip.

The other reason was money. Shapiro put down the phone and glowered at it. “You get what you pay for!” he said, and grabbed a departmental memo that lay on his desk. With a blunt pencil, he scribbled on the back a graph with two axes and an upside-down parabola. “I’m talking about the big fire hose.”

As I watched, he labelled the start of the graph “1958”—the year after the Soviets launched Sputnik, when the National Defense Education Act appropriated more than a billion dollars for education.

“We’re not talking about élite universities—we’re talking about money flowing into fifty states, all the way down. That was the beginning of the glory days of the humanities,” he continued. Near the plummeting end of the parabola, he scribbled “2007,” the beginning of the economic crisis. “That funding goes down,” he explained. “The financial support for the humanities is gone on a national level, on a state level, at the university level.”

Shapiro smoothed out his graph, regarded it for a moment, and ran the tip of his pencil back and forth across the curve.

“This is also the decline-of-democracy chart,” he said. He looked up and met my gaze. “You can overlay it on the money chart like a kind of palimpsest—it’s the same.”

At the high point of autumn—midterm season—I travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to spend time among the golden kids of Harvard. Last year, the college reportedly had a 3.19-per-cent admission rate. Those who make it through the needle’s eye are able to evade a lot of the forces thought to drag humanities enrollments down. Harvard’s financial-aid packages are ostensibly doled out to the full extent needed, and built without loans, giving students who receive aid the chance to graduate debt-free. Basic employability is assured by the diploma: even a Harvard graduate who majors in somersaults will be able to find some kind of job to pay the bills. In theory, this should be a school where the range of possibilities for college remains intact.

In 2022, though, a survey found that only seven per cent of Harvard freshmen planned to major in the humanities, down from twenty per cent in 2012, and nearly thirty per cent during the nineteen-seventies. From fifteen years ago to the start of the pandemic, the number of Harvard English majors reportedly declined by about three-quarters—in 2020, there were fewer than sixty at a college of more than seven thousand—and philosophy and foreign literatures also sustained losses. (For bureaucratic reasons, Harvard doesn’t count history as a humanity, but the trend holds.) “We feel we’re on the Titanic,” a senior professor in the English department told me.

Students lacked a strong sense of the department’s vaunted standing. “I would never say this to any of my English- or my film-major friends, but I kind of thought that those majors were a joke,” Isabel Mehta, a junior, told me. “I thought, I’m a writer, but I’ll never be an English major.” Instead, she’d pursued social studies—a philosophy, politics, and economics track whose popularity has exploded in recent years. (Policy, students explained, was thought to effect urgent change.) But the conversations bored her (students said “the same three things,” she reported, “and I didn’t want to be around all these classmates railing on capitalism all day”), so she landed uneasily in English after all. “I have a warped sense of identity, where I’m studying something really far removed from what a lot of people here view as central, but I’m not removed from these cultural forces,” she told me.

English professors find the turn particularly baffling now: a moment when, by most appearances, the appetite for public contemplation of language, identity, historiography, and other longtime concerns of the seminar table is at a peak.

“Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

Tara K. Menon, a junior professor who joined the English faculty in 2021, linked the shift to students arriving at college with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach. At Harvard, as elsewhere, courses that can be seen to approach an idea of canon, such as Humanities 10, an intensive, application-only survey, have been the focus of student concerns about too few Black artists in syllabi, or Eurocentric biases.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker (Sorry if you hit a paywall. PG isn’t certain how he got through.)

PG was fortunate enough to graduate with a silly major (for employment purposes) into a strong job market. His first job cleansed him of any taint caused by his undergraduate major which lead to a more remunerative second job.

Then, law school completely erased any questions that any potential employer had about his undergraduate major. PG suggests that, for more than a few jobs, a law degree is better than an MBA when interviewing for a management position because a businessperson in a position to hire someone for a nice pay package may think she/he understands what business is about, but law remains terra incognita for more than a few high-level business executives.

15 thoughts on “The End of the English Major”

  1. One of my mentors at my first job (DC area) was a Mechanical Engineer. Early 30’s, married, 2 Kids. He was studying law at night. I left before he graduated but I figure a Lawyer with a BA ME makes some nice coin. No problem paying off student loans or getting his kids through college.

    Choosing a “vocational” career path has its uses.

  2. Nobody cared about my undergraduate degrees because of the commission I earned along with them. “Lieutenant” (and “Captain” and “Major”) mattered a lot more than did the majors; when I left active duty, the companies most eager to hire me were in “major construction” and “management consulting” despite my not having any degree that would mean much there.

    And that’s the real point: Undergraduate education is not supposed to be job training. Too many businesses — or, more specifically, too many recruiters for too many businesses — presume (a) that it is and (b) the job training received is only that in the recent graduate’s major. (I’d make sarcastic remarks about how that’s what undergraduate business degrees teach in their courses, but such remarks really wouldn’t be sarcastic… more sardonic and cynical.) Undergraduate educations are supposed to teach you how to learn, and perhaps a bit about some aspects of reality. Outside of healthcare (which really is a different beast), a bachelor’s degree merely prepares the student to be parachuted into hostile territory with a fighting chance — just like any lieutenant. Any expectations otherwise fail to use the resource for its optimal or intended purpose.

    • Absolutely.

      My favorite teacher (PLANT DESIGN AND ECONOMICS) made sure to tell us over and over that while we were learning the basics of the profession, when we got out into the real world we would have to learn the trade before we could call ourselves engineers.
      And he followed that up by giving us a project to work out on our own “free time” while he taught the basics of engineering economics and (secretly, because he was at war with the language department) technical writing. For the project and writing he gave us one reference each and required weekly progress reports.

      Both proved priceless when I hit the job and they discovered I knew how to library research and especially write technical (three c’s!).

      The final report required a design for a facility to implement the assigned chemical process with a full economic analysis and yay/nay investment assessment.

      I really enjoyed that class and not just because it was last semester.

  3. I’m disappointed to hear about the decline of the English major. It’s such a valuable degree that provides students with a strong foundation for a variety of careers. I think it’s important to focus on ways to make the English major more attractive to students, such as offering more courses that are relevant to current job markets and providing more resources to help English majors build their skills and find career opportunities.

  4. I was an English major. Read + Write = Success. But at least it gave me time to read all the stuff I didn’t take the time to read earlier. If I had it to do over again, I’d have majored in a hard science, something that would inform my fiction.

    Like C.E., I got a lot more mileage out of Sergeant and Gunny and Top (Master Sergeant) than out of my silly English degree.

    • Corporal managed to get my resume to the top of the heap for my first real job. The guy hiring was a Major USMCR.

  5. Never overlook the advantages of timing. When I graduated Yale in 1975, it was with a sui generis degree in Comparative Mythology (I entered in advanced Math and hit my ceiling limit quickly accordingly — thought I’d get an education instead while I was there (dead languages, etc.))

    Whereupon I catapulted into the nascent tech industry via the programming route and never looked back. There was a scarcity in a new commercial field, my math background was a plus, I’d done some baby programming in high school, and the university was a credential for eventual (and actual) management.

    But if I were a student today… It’s a shame not to take advantage of college for a cultural education (Humanities) — assuming you can find an untainted one these days — but getting something useful on a resume is essential. Gone are the days that employers flailed around looking for anyone smart who could plausibly walk & talk, especially in a new field.

    The exception might be the trades — a business savvy type with an aptitude and some experience could probably do well as they continue to expand with tech.

    • Comparative Mythology sounds right up my alley. I still regret not chancing a stroll into an art history major. While I took as many humanities electives as I could, in my day college cost too much to not have a practical degree. I forgot the governor who wanted college to cost no more than $10,000 or so. That’s more palatable than the yearly sticker shock for NYU (if I remember correctly it was 40k a year in my day). But we’ll never go back to college simply being a place to develop and refine one’s intellectual mettle, so long as the sheepskin costs so much. That’s leaving aside the quality of the schooling, a lament in itself.

      • On the one hand, my unfortunate father had two kids to put through Yale. On the other hand, my brother bailed after Freshman year (and never returned to college), so it could’ve been worse for him.

        I still vividly remember my father’s phone call, my final semester, when he hesitantly nerved himself to ask about my post-graduate plans. I explained that there was only one place to get an MA in this field, and one for a PhD (UCLA). Those degrees would be useless — at my rung of the baby boom demographic there would never ever ever be a hope for tenure anywhere, and so I planned to get myself a real job. The discrete sigh of relief that resulted has stayed with me all my life. 🙂

        I used the degree topic as an excuse to take whatever humanities courses I wanted to (my advanced Math entry kept me from having any further non-humanities requirements to satisfy), some from the grad school (not a lot of undergraduates interested in Egyptian Hieroglyph or Old Irish), and several from quite renowned professors (e.g., Harold Bloom). I only wished I could have done more of them — an embarrassment of riches. But when I left, I could already hear the guns of structuralism beginning to arise from the English Dept.

        I feel like I got out just in time.

    • One advantage of a 5 year Engineering school instead of a 4 year school is the curriculuum *includes* humanities. Or it used to, anyway.

      As a ChemE I got one year of humanities, one semester economics and one semester sociology (the teacher was working towards a psychiatrist degree so she taught sociology at nine and *took* organic chemistry at ten. Same session as me because her husband taught the other. Oh and her son was studying electrical engineering. You meet all kinds in STEMworld.) Also one year spanish (unavoidable) one year advanced english. One year phys ed ,(ughh–I got “incomplete” first semester: bad swimmer.) one semester programming (FORTRAN, of course), and four free electives: I took one semester french, one semester Industrial Engineering Intro (mostly statistics), One year BioChem. On top of 4 years mandatory chem (general, Organic, Analytical, physical), one year physics, one year advanced math. On top of 4 years worth of ChemE courses. Lots of labs. 165 semester credit hours. (Second year saw most of the dropouts and transfers to liberal arts).

      There’s more to STEM than just math and science.

      Oh, and everybody had a job by graduation day.

    • You, Felix Torres and I are the oddballs, I think – most techies/STEM types want to take as few liberal arts classes as possible. OTOH, I’m glad I was in the College of Arts & Sciences, and thus had to meet the core curriculum requirements.

      There are a small number of colleges that have liberal arts programs that I would trust (e.g. would willing pay for my kids to attend). There are even fewer that have good liberal arts programs AND professional degrees such as engineering.

      I think if you’re lucky to get a great professor, it’s an irreplaceable experience. However, it’s certainly possible to learn to write and appreciate literature without an English degree. In fact, I suspect having a degree in English is probably an obstacle to becoming a good writer, especially nowadays.

      • Depends on the school. I suppose 4 year programs may be too short to go too far afield.

        I had little choice: other than the four electives all the other courses were mandatory. Humanities included.
        A quick search online showed me Rutgers insists Engineers have a minimum of 4 electives in humanities/social sciences.

        UPR-RUM, where I went, used to be all engineering and agrarian sciences early on (boys summer camp, basically) but then they added a nursing school and a liberal arts program. Plus a nuclear reactor when they added nuclear engineering. Both before my time. Last I heard they added separate degrees for biomedical and computer engineering more recently so the vocational bent continues.

        At least that’s one school that knows it’s purpose.

      • I’m more odd (surprised? probably not): I have full bachelor’s degrees in both STEM (biochemistry, just a couple courses short of a minor in math and in computer science) and English. (Entering with sophomore standing and skipping straight to the sophomore-level courses in both majors and in math helped…)

    • Looks right…
      …given they don’t list Doctors and Lawyers. Broke the curve?

      And, of course, not even an estimate of income for IdiotPoliticians™ and other scam artists.

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