Cover Story - Autumn 2009

The Decline of the English Department

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How it happened and what could be done to reverse it

By William M. Chace

September 1, 2009


 

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.

In addition to the long-term consequences, today there are stunning changes in the student population: there are more and more gifted and enterprising students coming from immigrant backgrounds, students with only slender connections to Western culture and to the assumption that the “great books” of England and the United States should enjoy a fixed centrality in the world. What was once the heart of the matter now seems provincial. Why throw yourself into a study of something not emblematic of the world but representative of a special national interest? As the campus reflects the cultural, racial, and religious complexities of the world around it, reading British and American literature looks more and more marginal. From a global perspective, the books look smaller.

But there are additional reasons for the drop in numbers of students concentrating in English and other subjects in the literary humanities. History, geography, and demography do not explain it all. Other forces, both external and internal, have been at work. The literary humanities and, in particular, English are in trouble for reasons beyond their control and for reasons of their own making. First, an obvious external cause: money. 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.

Off-campus, the consumer’s point of view about future earnings and economic security was a mirror image of on-campus thinking in the offices of deans, provosts, and presidents. I was in those offices, day in and day out, for 20 years, and can report that such officials are forever considering how to exploit available resources against ever-growing operating costs. As those costs grow, they create a paradox: the only way to bring in more money, over and above tuition income, is to employ more and more people to attract philanthropic donors and to assure the continuing flow of research dollars from governmental and other sources. Every administrator is complicit in the expanding number of necessary non-faculty employees—development officers, technical support staff, research assistants, lawyers attuned to federal regulations—and human resource personnel to handle the ever-growing numbers of just such new employees. I agree with historian Lynn Hunt’s description of the situation: “The university staff as a whole is getting bigger, but the relative presence of faculty, secretaries, and janitors is actually declining.” The faculty decline is, in particular, in the humanities, which bring in almost no outside income. Economists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, computer scientists, and almost everyone in the medical sciences win sponsored research, grants, and federal dollars. By and large, humanists don’t, and so they find themselves as direct employees of the institution, consuming money in salaries, pensions, and operating needs—not external money but institutional money.

The English department has one sturdy lifeline, however: it is responsible for teaching composition. While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity. Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with “literary” scholarship. Their work, while crucial, is demeaned.

Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset. The presence of endowed “centers for the humanities,” the availability of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the MacArthur Foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others, ease in only small ways the financial crunch universities now endure. As John H. D’Arms, formerly the head of the ACLS, reported more than a decade ago, even the meager outside support conveyed to humanists is slowly drying up and the responsibility for their well-being is “being increasingly shifted to the colleges and universities and . . . they cannot, or will not, make up the losses from other sources.”

These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.

English has become less and less coherent as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly pursuit. English departments have not responded energetically and resourcefully to the situation surrounding them. While aware of their increasing marginality, English professors do not, on the whole, accept it. Reluctant to take a clear view of their circumstances—some of which are not under their control—they react by asserting grandiose claims while pursuing self-centered ends. Amid a chaos of curricular change, requirements dropped and added, new areas of study in competition with older ones, and a variety of critical approaches jostling against each other, many faculty members, instead of reconciling their differences and finding solid ground on which to stand together, have gone their separate ways. As they have departed, they have left behind disorder in their academic discipline. Unable to change history or rewrite economic reality, they might at least have kept their own house in order. But this they have not done.

The result—myriad pursuits, each heading away from any notion of a center—has prompted many thoughtful people to question what, indeed, the profession of literature amounts to. As long ago as 1982, the iconoclastic literary critic Frederick Crews, keenly attracted to exposing the moribund in intellectual life, announced that the study of English literature couldn’t decide if it was “a legitimate discipline or only a pastime.” He concluded that it was not so much a profession as a “comatose field.” Two decades later, in 2004, looking back over his shoulder, the intellectual historian and literary journalist Louis Menand told his fellow professors at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association something they already knew: while student enrollment in the humanities peaked around 1970, “it has been downhill” ever since. His verdict: “It may be that what has happened to the profession is not the consequence of social or philosophical changes, but simply the consequence of a tank now empty.” His homely metaphor pointed to the absence of genuinely new frontiers of knowledge and understanding for English professors to explore. This is exactly the opposite, he implied, of the prospects that natural scientists face: many frontiers to cross, much knowledge to be gained, real work to do.

Indeed, inquests abound. The annual meetings of the Modern Language Association have become somber opportunities for scholars to engage in painful rituals of self-diagnosis and confessions of despair. In 2006, Marjorie Perloff, then president of the organization and herself a productive and learned critic, admonished her colleagues that, unlike other members of the university community, they might well have been plying their trade without proper credentials: “Whereas economists or physicists, geologists or climatologists, physicians or lawyers must master a body of knowledge before they can even think of being licensed to practice,” she said, “we literary scholars, it is tacitly assumed, have no definable expertise.”

Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.

Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

Consider the English department at Harvard University. It has now agreed to remove its survey of English literature for undergraduates, replacing it and much else with four new “affinity groups”—“Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions,” and “Shakespeares.” The first would examine outside influences on English literature; the second would look at whatever poets the given instructor would select; the third would study various writings (again, picked by the given instructor) resulting from the spread of English around the globe; and the final grouping would direct attention to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Daniel Donoghue, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, told The Harvard Crimson last December that “our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.” And Harvard’s well-known Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt also told the Crimson that the substance of the old survey will “trickle down to students through the professors themselves who, after all, specialize in each of these areas of English literature.” But under the proposal, there would be no one book, or family of books, that every English major at Harvard would have read by the time he or she graduates. The direction to which Harvard would lead its students in this “clean slate” or “trickle down” experiment is to suspend literary history, thrusting into the hands of undergraduates the job of cobbling together intellectual coherence for themselves. Greenblatt puts it this way: students should craft their own literary “journeys.” The professors might have little idea of where those journeys might lead, or how their paths might become errant. There will be no common destination.

As Harvard goes, so often go the nation’s other colleges and universities. Those who once strove to give order to the curriculum will have learned, from Harvard, that terms like core knowledge and foundational experience only trigger acrimony, turf protection, and faculty mutinies. No one has the stomach anymore to refight the Western culture wars. Let the students find their own way to knowledge.

For me, this turn of events has proven anything but happy or liberating. I have long wanted to believe that I am a member of a profession, a discipline to which I could, if fortunate, add my knowledge and skill. I have wanted to believe that this discipline had certain borders and limitations and that there were essential things to know, to preserve, and to pass on. But it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.

Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves—the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or “acting assistant professors.” These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.’s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn’t here anymore; our technology is obsolete.

I still teach, and do so with a veteran’s pride in what I know and what I hope I can give. My classrooms are, I hope, bright and sunny places where we can spend good time with Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But I know what some of my students sense, that what we do now faces an array of problems, any one of which might prove surmountable, but which together amount to an enervating spectacle. Fewer and fewer undergraduates are showing up in classrooms, mine and everyone else’s; the pleasure of undergraduate reading is everywhere blighted by worries about money and career; university administrators are more likely to classify “literary types” as budgetary liabilities than as assets; the disciplines we teach are in a free fall, as ideology, ethnicity, theory, gender, sexuality, and old-fashioned “close reading” spin away from any center of professional consensus about joint purposes; and the youngest would-be professionals, shrinking in number, stare at diminished job prospects.

It would be a pleasure to map a way out of this academic dead end. First, several of my colleagues around the country have called for a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate. They urge the teaching of English, or French, or Russian literature, and the like, in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom. Second, we should redefine our own standards for granting tenure, placing more emphasis on the classroom and less on published research, and we should prepare to contest our decisions with administrators whose science-based model is not an appropriate means of evaluation. Released from the obligation to deliver research results in the form of little-read monographs and articles, humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn. If they wanted to publish, they could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet, and like-minded colleagues could rapidly share the results of such research and speculation. Most important, the luxury of reading could be welcomed back. I want to believe in what they say.

I have also wanted to believe that English and American literature constitutes a subject of study that is historically coherent and shaped by the intrinsic design of its own making. The causes giving it that shape can be analyzed, as can the merit and integrity of each of the achievements within it. And students, without whose energetic presence the study will wither, can be attracted to an activity—partly aesthetic and partly detective-like—in which they can participate along with teachers who bring enthusiasm to the work at hand. Like young scientists teaming together with older scientists at the same workbench, they can be made to feel that what they are doing makes sense, is shared by others, and will result in knowledge worth having. Perhaps they, the youngest generation, can labor with their teachers in putting together the house that has forfeited its sense of order. If they do, they can graduate with the knowledge that they possess something: a fundamental awareness of how a certain powerful literature was created over time, how its parts fit together, and how the process of creation has been renewed and changed through the centuries.

Some of their detective work could involve topics of great current interest—the role of race or gender or sexuality in the making of a work. But the focus would or should be on the books, not on the theories they can be made to support. English departments need not refight the Western culture wars. But they need to fight their own book wars. They must agree on which texts to teach and argue out the choices and the principles of making them if they are to claim the respect due a department of study.

They can also convert what many of them now consider a liability and a second-rate activity into a sizable asset. They can teach their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression. Those students will thus carry with them, into employment interviews or into further educational training, a proficiency everywhere respected but too often lacking among college graduates.

If nothing is done to put an end to the process of disintegration, the numbers will continue in a steady downward spiral. More and more of the teaching jobs in the humanities will be occupied by untenured part-timers (in English, it is now one in six). But the good news is that certain forms of intellectual history will still be written and will still be accessible to ordinary readers. Shakespeare’s plays will still be performed, even if largely unsponsored by departments of English. Literary biography will still command an appreciative readership. The better private institutions, aware of noblesse oblige, will prove kinder than large public institutions to the literary humanities, but even this solicitude will have its limits.

The study of literature will then take on the profile now held, with moderate dignity, by the study of the classics, Greek and Latin. For those of us who care about literature and teaching, this is a depressing prospect, but not everyone will share the sense of loss. As the Auden poem about another failure has it, “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

But we can, we must, do better. At stake are the books themselves and what they can mean to the young. Yes, it is just a literary tradition. That’s all. But without such traditions, civil societies have no compass to guide them. That boy falling out of the sky is not to be neglected.

William M. Chace is the author of 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way. He was president of Wesleyan University and, thereafter, of Emory University. He now teaches at Stanford.


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