The Decline of the English Department

By William M. Chace Oct 7, 2009

Garrison Keilor’s genial quips about English majors notwithstanding, author and scholar William M. Chace takes a look at the many reasons the study of English literature has a suffered a steep decline in higher education. Part 1 offers reasons and an historical context.
During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history.

As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land. And because it is probably irreversible, it is important to attempt to sort out the reasons—the many reasons—for what has happened.

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.

That, as I say, is the most serious cause of the decline in the number of humanities students.

But it is not alone. In an educational collapse of this magnitude, other forces must also be at play. The first of these is the surging growth of public higher education and the relatively slower growth of private colleges and universities.

During the most recent period for which good figures are available (from 1972 to 2005), more young people entered the world of higher education than at any time in American history. Where did they go? Increasingly into public, not private, schools.

In the space of that one generation, public colleges and universities wound up with more than 13 million students in their classrooms while private institutions enrolled about 4.5 million. Students in public schools tended toward majors in managerial, technical, and pre-professional fields while students in private schools pursued more traditional and less practical academic subjects.

Although many public institutions have had an interest in teaching the humanities, their prime role has always rested elsewhere: in engineering, research science, and the applied disciplines (agriculture, mining, viniculture, veterinary medicine, oceanography).

By contrast, private schools have until now been the most secure home of the humanities. But today even some liberal arts colleges are offering fewer courses in the liberal arts and more courses that are “practical.”

With their ascendancy, the presiding ethos of public institutions—fortified by the numbers of majors and faculty, and by the amounts of money involved—has come to exert a more and more powerful thrust in American higher education.

The result? The humanities, losing the national numbers game, find themselves moving to the periphery of American higher education.

But were they ever at the center? The notion that the literary humanities in particular have been at the heart of American higher education is, I think, a mirage. I once thought so because of the great popularity of the study of literature during my undergraduate and graduate years.

Yet the “glory years” of English and American literature turn out to have been brief. Before we regret the decline of the literary humanities, then, we must acknowledge how fleeting their place in the sun was.

In this country and in England, the study of English literature began in the latter part of the 19th century as an exercise in the scientific pursuit of philological research, and those who taught it subscribed to the notion that literature was best understood as a product of language.

The discipline treated the poems and narratives of a particular place, the British Isles, as evidence of how the linguistic roots of that place—Germanic, Romance, and other—conditioned what had been set before us as “masterpieces.” The twin focus, then, was on the philological nature of the enterprise and the canon of great works to be studied in their historical evolution.

Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Gerald Graff’s impressive study of what happened next, shows that even criticism of that canon is not yet a century old: “Scholar and critic emerge as antithetical terms,” he writes, and “the gulf further widens between fact and value, investigation and appreciation, scientific specialization and general culture.”

Yet neither side denied the existence of a canon or that its historical development could be studied.

The stability of these ideas in the postwar years, from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, permitted the spectacular growth in English departments. The number of English majors spurted up from 17,000 to 64,000 and the number of graduate students from 230 to 1,591. (As part of that spurt, I entered graduate school in 1961 and got my Ph.D. seven years later.)

But by 1985/86, the number of undergraduate English majors had fallen back to 34,000, despite a hefty increase in total nationwide undergraduate enrollment. In the foreign languages, philosophy, and history, the story was the same: impressive growth followed by swift decline.

The history of enrollments reveals, then, that the study of English and American literature enjoyed only a momentary glamour.

What was the appeal of English during those now long-ago days? For me, English as a way of understanding the world began at Haverford College, where I was an undergraduate in the late 1950s.

The place was small, the classrooms plain, the students all intimidated boys, and the curriculum both straightforward and challenging. What we read forced us to think about the words on the page, their meaning, their ethical and psychological implications, and what we could contrive (in 500-word essays each week) to write about them.

With the books in front of us, we were taught the skills of interpretation. Our tasks were difficult, the books (Emerson’s essays, David Copperfield, Shaw’s Major Barbara, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and a dozen other works) were masterly, and our teacher possessed an authority it would have been “bootless” (his word) to question.

Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking.

We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.

Finding pleasure in such reading, and indeed in majoring in English, was a declaration at the time that education was not at all about getting a job or securing one’s future.

In comparison with the pre-professional ambitions that dominate the lives of American undergraduates today, the psychological condition of students of the time was defined by self-reflection, innocence, and a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next.

Also visible in the late 1940s and early 1950s were thousands of GIs returning from World War II with a desire to establish for themselves lives as similar as possible to those they imagined had been led by the college generation before their own.

For these veterans, college implied security and tradition, a world unlike the one they had left behind in Europe and the Pacific. So they did what they thought one always did in college: study, reflect, and learn.

They would reconnect, they thought, with the cultural traditions the war had been fought to defend. Thus a curriculum complete with “great books” and a pantheon of established authors went without question for those students, and it was reinforced for everybody else.

For those like me who immediately followed them in the 1950s and early 1960s, the centrality of the humanities to a liberal education was a settled matter. But by the end of the 1960s, everything was up for grabs and nothing was safe from negative and reductive analysis.

Every form of anti-authoritarian energy—concerning sexual mores, race relations, the war in Vietnam, mind-altering drugs—was felt across the nation (I was at Berkeley, the epicenter of all such energies).

Against such ferocious intensities, few elements of the cultural patterns of the preceding decades could stand. The long-term consequences of such a spilling-out of the old contents of what college meant reverberate today.

William M. Chace has taught at Berkeley, Stanford, Wesleyan, and Emory, and served as president of the last two. He is the author of 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way.

Reprinted from The American Scholar, Volume 78, No. 4, Autumn 2009 Copyright 2009 by the author.