kitchen table math, the sequel: "The Decline of the English Department"

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"The Decline of the English Department"

First the facts: while the study of English has become less popular among undergraduates, the study of business has risen to become the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. With more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates. Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):

English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
William H. Chace
American Scholar
Autumn 2009

9 comments:

Bonnie said...

I personally think there is a completely different reason. Today's students want a credential that leads directly to a job for the least amount of work possible. Business, especially the more popular and lighter specialties such as marketing, fills that bill admirably. There are also many more nontraditional students, whose employers are often paying the tab. Most employers will not pay for an English degree, but will pay for a business degree. Honestly, I don't think undergraduates are even aware of the different ways that English could be taught.

Crimson Wife said...

The Baby Boomers could major in fluffy disciplines because they weren't coming out of school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. They also benefited from the relative scarcity of people with bachelor's degrees when they graduated. Simply having a degree at all (regardless of major) set one apart. Today, the majority of young people in certain areas are college graduates, so field of study is much more important.

My brother-in-law disregarded all the advice everyone gave him about not majoring in history without double-majoring in something marketable in addition. After he graduated, the only job he could find was one he did while in high school- cashier at Target. Fortunately, he didn't have any student loans, but it was a complete waste of my IL's money.

Anonymous said...

"What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books."

This is very similar to the complaint Hanson and Heath make in Who Killed Homer? Which doesn't make it wrong (and Hanson and Heath were not the first to make this sort of argument).

I think Bonnie and CW are much closer to the truth, though. *Most* students in college want a piece of paper helping them get a good job. 30-40 years ago, any paper from a college would help with this (and the cost was mostly time, not money/debt). Today, the kids still want the piece of paper, but many majors don't help any more.

One key mistake that I think many defenders of classics/literature/history make is that for many people spending four years (and often lots of money) learning this is a *LUXURY*. Really. You don't need these things and they won't help you get a job.

Are they nice to have? Sure! Will you maybe have a richer internal life if you study these? Certainly.

But this is also true of vacationing in Europe for a year. Nice to have, but something that many people feel that they can't afford.

I don't think that the classics/literature/history departments *CAN* make themselves as relevant and practical (and easy!) as, say, business [which I think is a pretty worthless undergraduate major], or accounting. They just aren't "practical" any more than studying music or film is.

These subjects are luxury goods.

And will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

And kids signing up to major in these fields is going to reflect this.

-Mark Roulo

Allison said...

And that's where Hanson would disagree. He argues that without a rigorous curriculum that teaches e.g. that certain ideas are timeless, certain problems have been around forever, and then demands you learn to think well enough to articulate your position on those ideas, you are a pretty lousy candidate for a job. And he has plenty of people who are CEOs and the like agreeing with him. I am sure he's right: the kids graduating with "studies" majors have no idea that society has been questioning and coming up with ideas about how to deal with justice, income inequality, the role of the state, the role of property, ideas about immigration, free trade vs mercantilism, creative destruction caused by inventions, and the like for thousands of years. They can't articulate a position on the above, either.

I think Hanson would agree that too many people are going to college, certainly--and that adds to the problem.

But I don't think kids are the ones demanding gender roles in Zimbabwe films as a course. No, the kids are running the candy store: the academics and deans are playing town with someone else's ts money, and designing the schools of their own dreams. It's not that kids would rather have real courses and learn something; it's that they don't care one way or the other--they are going for the credential. If schools raised the bar, kids would still be going for the credential.

The notion that liberal arts is suffering because of lack of relevance doesn't fit with the rise in the top majors--businses is number 1, and as you've pointed out, it's worthless. What in the world do business majors *know* about anything? It's not relevant to any job out there. It doesn't make you job-ready at all. The next most popular major is psychology: again, what job is that relevant for as an undergrad degree? None. Princeton review lists nursing as the 3rd of the top ten majors, but I don't know what that means as an undergrad. 4th is biology--again, a ugrad with a bio major and no advanced degree can maybe kinda sorta get a job in pharma, maybe--but the H1(b)s are probably driving them out, too.

Allison said...

btw, english lang and lit is listed as the 6th of the top ten majors by princeton review (5th is education.) not exactly the case that students today really want a major that leads "directly" to a job after all.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"not exactly the case that students today really want a major that leads "directly" to a job after all."

The argument is not that students want a major that leads to a job. They don't want a major at all—they just want a degree in something. Business and psychology are popular, but less for their content than for being known for having the easiest classes. Bio and nursing are popular because students have been told (repeatedly) that all the jobs in the future will be in the health industry.

Bonnie said...

You and I might see a business major as "worthless" in terms of content, but the people who hire, and the managers who decided which employees get tuition reimbursement, tend to disagree. And, OK, nontrads going to school on employer tuition reimbursement may not be be a big thing at Harvard, but those students make up a big chunk of majors at many schools, especially regional schools.

The other thing that is important to remember is that some majors, such as English, history, and biology, will not lead to jobs without some kind of further training. Students who major in English know (or should know) that they are going to have to get a PhD if they want to stay in the field, or more likely, get an MBA or head to law school. A student who majors in business or engineering can go straight out and find an entry level job. Many of them will go on to a master's degree, often paid for by their employer. So, finances can play a big role in the decision to major in nursing, or engineering, or business instead of English or history.

Finally, I really don't think the students care what they get in their English classes. When I have advised students, they seem equally happy with the course on race or gender, as with "classics" courses. Happy may be the wrong word - perhaps "apathetic", or "hoping it will be easy" are better descriptors.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

I think that the relative prestige of a college needs to be taken into account when considering questions of "marketable" majors. A philosophy major from Princeton still stands a better chance of being hired on Wall Street than a business major from Podunk U. (or even mid-first tier U.). Not that everyone's really clamoring to work on Wall Street right now, but regardless. It doesn't mean an automatic "in," but someone with a liberal arts degree from an elite school is still going to be miles ahead of the pack in terms of getting hired anywhere, regardless of whether they majored in Econ or Gender Studies. I have a B.A. in what most Americans would consider two of the most useless fields imaginable (French and Music), and I've had people willing to hire me without even bothering to interview me, just based on the schools listed on my resume.

As someone who admittedly has something of a fascination with literary theory (and its abuses within the context of the American university), I also find the whole "professors have ruined the humanities by over-specializing/turning everything into fill-in-the-blank minority theory" argument to often be a poorly disguised excuse for romanticizing the good old days -- you know, before women and brown people stated making such a damn fuss about wanting to be included in things. While the actual teaching of "theory" in the classroom can easily approach outright parody (is it really necessary to "queer" Batman?), I think it's highly naive to assume that most undergraduates will fall magically in love with the canon if everyone scraps the theory and just lets it speak for itself. As others have said, most nineteen year-olds want to get a piece of paper that will get them a job, not ponder how much of Hamlet's madness is feigned and how much is real (that is, if they can even understand what Shakespeare is talking about without spending half their time on Sparknotes).

While it may be trite to say so, I think that what a really stellar liberal arts education teaches, above all, is a way of approaching unfamiliar information, of analyzing it, and of considering its relative merits and demerits. Someone with that solid a set of fundamental skills can get thrown into pretty much any job (barring ones requiring specific technical knowledge) and pretty much be ok. On the other hand, kids with business degrees can barely handle the GMAT because they can't even figure out what the reading passages are saying.

Wow, that was a whole lot longer than I intended it to be!

Crimson Wife said...

Those liberal arts majors from Ivy caliber universities are only getting hired by Wall St. firms straight out of undergrad if they're a nepotism hire. Otherwise, Wall St. firms are looking for a STEM major or possibly an econ major who has taken a lot of quant-heavy courses like econometrics.