The Decline of the English Department

In response to my previous post on the rise of undergraduate business schools, I came across an excellent article in American Scholar, written by William M. Chace, an English Professor in of 40 years. The article analyzes on the decline of humanities within higher education, and the subsequent rise of the undergraduate business degrees. Mr. Chace’s analysis of the Humanities’ decline breaks down into three parts: the rise of public institutions, student anxiety, and the need for a dramatic revamping of Humanities’ curriculum.

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. 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.

Mr. Chace correctly creates this dichotomy, a dichotomy that I am all too familiar with as an enrolled student at a public university. I’d surmise that students within public universities are exposed to the insecurities of the job market and their vocational future at a much higher frequency than private institutions. Sprawling career centers, omnipresent career fairs, and suit-and-tie clad cohorts are regular occurrences on public campuses. A good friend at a California private institution (majoring in Cognitive Science) recently remarked to the degree to which “he lives in a bubble.” That is to say, his peers are surrounded by tenured professors who place little emphasis on the importance of co-ops, resumes, and internships.

With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree. Their college-age children doubtless share such anxiety. When college costs were lower, anxiety could be kept at bay. (Berkeley in the early ’60s cost me about $100 a year, about $700 in today’s dollars.) Alexander W. Astin’s research tells us that in the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen reported that nothing was more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that “being very well off financially” was only an afterthought, one that fewer than 45 percent of those freshmen thought to be an essential goal. As the years went on, however, and as tuition shot up, the two traded places; by 1977, financial goals had surged past philosophical ones, and by the year 2001 more than 70 percent of undergraduate students had their eyes trained on financial realities, while only 40 percent were still wrestling with meaningful philosophies.

Mr. Chace couldn’t be more closer to the truth, and pulls out telling statistics to further bolster his point. The dramatic shift in college-aged students’ importance placed upon gaining “life philosophies” explains why many of today’s collegians are so frequently finding themselves “half-listening” to the advice of our parents generation.

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.

I lament this paradigm shift, and appreciate that others are noticing it. While I find myself perpetually reading outside of the curriculum, I’ve witnessed an increasingly whittling minority of students sharing my zeal for extra-curricular refinement through reading. As the state of the international job market and the importance placed upon financial security becomes increasingly transparent, I fear that Universities will truly never return to their platonic state.

One thought on “The Decline of the English Department

  1. Agreed with your major points. Mr. Chace is a bit dramatic, only because he doesn’t have the perspective of the student.

    The issue(s) could be easily solved by focusing classroom culture on the individual learning needs + interests of each student. However, although I use the word easily, it’s not an easy task to implement.

    Read Disrupting Class:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s