The Decline of
the English Department
By William M. Chace Oct 7, 2009
Garrison Keilors 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
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
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 reasonsthe
many reasonsfor 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
nations 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
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9
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
Despite last years debacle on Wall Street, the
humanities have not benefited; students are still
wagering that business jobs will be there when the
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
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
institutionsfortified by the numbers of majors and
faculty, and by the amounts of money involvedhas
come to exert a more and more powerful thrust in American
The result? The humanities, losing the national numbers
game, find themselves moving to the periphery of American
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
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
The discipline treated the poems and narratives of a
particular place, the British Isles, as evidence of how
the linguistic roots of that placeGermanic, Romance,
and otherconditioned 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
Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Gerald
Graffs 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
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
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
With the books in front of us, we were taught the skills
of interpretation. Our tasks were difficult, the books (Emersons
essays, David Copperfield, Shaws 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
differenceto 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 ones
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 energyconcerning
sexual mores, race relations, the war in Vietnam, mind-altering
drugswas 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.