The end of the English major is just the tip of the iceberg

A few weeks ago, an article by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker chronicled “the end of the English major,” examining the trend of shrinking English departments nationwide and the cultural factors that lead students away from spending four years with the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. Like every other humanities-lover on a college campus that day, I was swept away in the mass panic. My major was, according to a reputable English-major-loving publication, dead. Happy Monday.
In the article, Heller explored the English departments at Arizona State and Harvard — large, well-known institutions, barometers for the trajectory of higher education. At first, I thought I had found the article’s weak spot: It had forgotten the small liberal arts colleges. Surely, in my mind, the English major was safe here — where students come for the love of learning, for the breadth of their education, not to ensure that they’ll be well on their way to middle management by the time they graduate.
Institutional data crushed that hope almost immediately. In the spring semester of 2003, there were 84 declared English majors at Allegheny College. They made up 9% of all declared majors on campus. As of this semester, there are 20 declared English majors, just 2.5% of all declared majors. That is a 72% drop in 20 years. The national trend holds at Allegheny, just as it did at Harvard and ASU.
If Heller had looked at Allegheny’s website while researching the article, though, he would have been met with the same encouraging promises that fueled my own optimism. “Why put your mind to just one thing?” our site asks. “Why would a school teach you only one way to think? Prepare you for just one kind of job? You’re capable of more than that. So we’re going to ask more of you.”
Allegheny’s web-persona is decidedly different from ASU’s egalitarian understanding of a bachelor’s degree as a stepping-stone to a solid career, much less the idea that, in Heller’s words, “even a Harvard graduate who majors in somersaults will be able to find some kind of job.” We tend to market ourselves as a sanctuary of learning, one of the final ivory towers in a city full of concrete-and-plate-glass factories. While students may go to ASU because it will grant them the privileges that come with a bachelor’s degree or Harvard because it will increase their likelihood of a well-paying job or admission to a top graduate program, Allegheny seems to believe that students come here for different reasons entirely: Curiosity, diversity or to construct a meaningful personal philosophy.
It’s a lovely picture. But if Heller had decided to visit our campus after reading our website, he would’ve been confronted with a different picture. Here, some students are locked into their majors from the moment they set foot on the quad, swayed by departments who want to snap them up early. Here, our “mind over major” dogma fights a losing battle against insular departments and even more insular disciplines as students bemoan their distribution requirements and “unusual” minors.
Back in the English department, I see majors satisfied with their schoolwork but convinced they’re unemployable, certain that they have wasted four years and thousands of dollars on a whim.
Allegheny is not living up to its ideals — the proclamation that this campus is not only different but also correct in its approach to education, that there is a good reason why we continue to row against the current. Or, at least, why we pretend to.
We need to divest from this disease creeping across college campuses that Heller chronicled: The one that encourages students to choose the “safeguard thing;” that says “you don’t go to Harvard for basket weaving” and leads people to “view the humanities as very hobby-based.” We need to think about the ways in which the humanities enrich students’ lives beyond degree or job requirements and support those disciplines accordingly.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his essay collection “A Man Without a Country” that the arts are no way to make a living. Heller made clear that almost everyone seems to believe this about the humanities, too, nowadays. But we need to pay attention to what Vonnegut said after that sentence, since it is what makes all the difference. He wrote: “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”
This means that the future of the humanities, on this campus as well as others, is likely not as a career path for many but instead as a life-giving, soul-building tool. It means, perhaps, forgetting about the decline of the English major and instead focusing on growing the English minor. Far from signaling unimportance, this shift shows just how vital the humanities are to life — not everybody can or should pursue a degree in chemistry, but it is increasingly clear to me that everybody would benefit from spending 20 credit hours reading, thinking about and discussing literature.
The English major may indeed soon be at its end — who knows? As students are encouraged to walk ever-narrowing paths, convinced of the lie that a BA in English or philosophy or history won’t get them into medical or law school, the decline of humanities majors on campuses globally may be inevitable.
The lessons and skills an English major teaches aren’t dead, though, until we say they are. On this campus, especially, we are primed for the type of liberal education to which the humanities are well-suited. It takes incredibly hard work to turn a culture around, even a campus culture of under 2,000 people. I am certain Allegheny is up to the task, though. With our marketing, we’re already halfway there — now it is our actions and words across campus that need to realign accordingly.
Jonathan Lethem wrote in his novella “This Shape We’re In” that “times change and men adapt,” though it’s “too bad it’s not the other way around.” This is true — it is too bad. It is important to remember, though, that there is a large gulf between “too bad” and “tragedy,” and in that space, there is plenty of room for us to stop, breathe and try to do better.