The Volokh Conspiracy

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Where Did All the English Majors Go?

A NewYorker essay on why no one studies English anymore.


One of the latest articles about higher education in The New Yorker is "The End of the English Major," by Nathan Heller. It analyzes the precipitous decline in college students who choose to major in English, as well as the broader decline in enrollment in the humanities.

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. . . .

. . . 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?

No doubt there are a range of variables that have influenced these trends, including incrasing demand for majors that lead directly to careers. But it is also possible that trends within the humanities themselves, and English in particular, bear some of the blame.

[Some] suggest that the humanities' loss of cultural capital has been hastened by the path of humanities scholarship itself. One theory is that the critical practices have become too specialized. Once, in college, you might have studied "Mansfield Park" by looking closely at its form, references, style, and special marks of authorial genius—the way Vladimir Nabokov famously taught the novel, and an intensification of the way a reader on the subway experiences the book. Now you might write a paper about how the text enacts a tension by both constructing and subtly undermining the imperial patriarchy through its descriptions of landscape. What does this have to do with how most humans read? Rita Felski, whose book "Uses of Literature" is studied in Adams's A.S.U. class, has argued that the professional practice of scholarship has become self-defeatingly disdainful of moving literary encounters. "In retrospect, much of the grand theory of the last three decades now looks like the last gasp of an Enlightenment tradition of rois philosophes persuaded that the realm of speculative thought would absolve them of the shameful ordinariness of a messy, mundane, error-prone existence," she wrote. "Contemporary critics pride themselves on their power to disenchant." The disenchantment, at least, has reached students.

Intrestingly enough, the decline in enrollments has not been uniform. There are some redoubts where students still flock to such courses.

Bring back the awe, some say, and students will follow. "In my department, the author is very much alive!" Robert Faggen, a Robert Frost scholar and a longtime literature professor at Claremont McKenna, told me, to account for the still healthy enrollment he sees there. (There are institutional outliers to the recent trend of enrollment decline; the most prominent is U.C. Berkeley.) "We are very concerned with the beauty of things, with aesthetics, and ultimately with judgment about the value of works of art. I think there is a hunger among students for the thrill that comes from truth and beauty."

Perhaps therein lies a lesson.

English is not the only humanities subject for which there appears to be flagging interest—and it is not the only humanities subject that has discarded the subjects and inquiries that once fueled great interest in favor of modish theoretical inquiries or endless forms of oppression studies. Perhaps there is a connection. Perhaps declining enrollments are a market response to the gradual abandonment of the core of a great liberal education. Whether they articulate it or not, perhaps students have concluded that if they are not going to get a real education, at least they should be able to get a job.