Declining Numbers of English Majors

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips

I mentioned yesterday an article in American Scholar (Autumn 2009) on “The Decline of the English Department: How It Happened and What Could Be Done to Reverse It.” (My thanks to my father for sending it to me.) The author’s solution: put literature first.  Which I indeed think we should do but doubt that it will solve the problem.

The author is William Chace who, as past president of my graduate school alma mater (Emory University), may be thinking about (among other programs) the department that granted me my Ph.D. Chace is concerned about how English major numbers have dwindled from 7.6 percent in 1970/71 to 3.9 percent in 2003/04. The rest of the Humanities have suffered as well. While some of the blame lies with external factors, Chace says that at 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.

Chace remembers his own experience studying English in the 1950’s:

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 conditions of students of the time was defined by self-reflection, innocence, and a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next.

While the times have changed, Chace blames English Departments for not responding to these changes. Instead of solidifying their discipline, everybody is abandoning “foundational principles”:

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.

I’m not in the best position to judge how correct Chace is.  He has experienced graduate programs whereas I am most familiar with St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a small liberal arts college. Graduate programs put a lot of emphasis on publishing, which means that scholars must always be doing something new—and there’s only so much new stuff you can find in works that have been studied for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Literature is not like science. To find new topics, therefore, scholars are almost forced to go to the fringes of the discipline, resurrecting and arguing for works that no one has heard of and finding new approaches into works that can seem esoteric.  Some scholars embrace literary theory, which may be good for shaking free a new insight here or there but often likes to take center stage.

By contrast, schools like mine are more focused on teaching than on scholarship, and we tend to be eclectic in our application of literary theory, seeing it as subordinate to the work.  So we already are following Chace’s sugestion that we return the focus to the classroom.  To do so, Chase says, would mean returning to “the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate.” As he puts it, if we don’t focus on scholarship, “humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn.”

Are we proof that Chace is right?  After all, English is regularly either first or second in the number of majors graduated each year at St. Mary’s (our major competition is biology and psychology).

Chace continues on:

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 dong makes sense, is shared by others, and will result in knowledge worth having . . . 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.

I think Chace is basically right although there are good reasons why we encounter difficulties coming up with a generally agreed-upon list of must-read works. Such lists have been changing throughout history, often for interesting historical reasons. But yes, putting quality books at the core of an English department is a good thing to do. It is built into our program at St. Mary’s, which requires all our majors to take multiple survey courses.

But I suspect we are not unusual.  Outside of certain graduate programs, I’d be surprised if most English teachers, in large universities as well as small colleges, aren’t teaching this way already. There are certain works and authors that reappear in syllabus after syllabus all over this country. We may have disagreements about certain secondary authors–every age has–but the biggies float to the top, and Shakespeare continues to be the most taught author in English departments. We have unofficial canons, even if not official ones. Most of us will drop works if they don’t continue to resonate after we have taught them multiple times.  In other words, they must be works that stand the test of time.

In short,I suspect that most English teachers love good books and love sharing their enthusiasm.  As a result, they attract students who like reading. They work hard to make the classics more front and center in American lives.

In my own case, in addition to my college classes, I teach non-credit retirement center classes, moderate a public library book discussion group, and run this website. I have one colleague who teaches in prisons, another two who visit public school classrooms and other public forums around the state, and yet another who sets up Twain lectures (and who speaks at rotary clubs and other such venues to persuade people to come).

While Chace may believe English Departments could change history by changing our practices, I suspect the grim reality is that external factors have more sway than he admits.  Economic realities rather than English Department irresponsibility are the major culprit.  Facing that reality, we each, in our small way, do what we can.

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  1. Blade Lawless
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    I enjoy your website. It is indeed a shame that economic factors have diluted the idealism of our students today. Sadly, most people today view the pursuit of an education as nothing but the preparation for a career. The idea that a knowledge of the humanities can help one to live a more rewarding and enjoyable life has become a quaint archaism. I think you are right that most English professors do carry on a well-intentioned and capable fight against Philistinism, but I also believe that William Chace is correct when he faults English departments for neglecting the traditional canon. One of the biggest sappers undermining the canon is political correctness. Another is the onus placed on professors to keep their students happy and entertained in order to elicit good evaluations from their students. With their eyes on the prize of glowing recommendations, some professors choose to teach trendy works that they know their students will find “relevant” and enjoyable. I love Flannery O’ Connor’s comment on the teaching of traditional, canonical literature: “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be considered; it is being formed.”

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I very much like your phrase “quaint archaism,” Blade. The image that comes to mind is from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” where the poet imagines himself as a crafted nightingale designed to keep “a drowsy emperor awake.” Rather than, say, stir his soul. It’s as though Yeats, while celebrating poetry, is also making a self deprecating remark that he realizes he is a quaint archaism. But at least the emperor is listening, rather than, say, playing video games.

    Your Flannery O’Connor quotation, meanwhile, reminds me of the story (probably apocryphal) of the man visiting an art museum and complaining about the art on the walls–to which a security guard supposedly replied, “The paintings are not on trial. You are.”

    My sense is that political correctness doesn’t have the impact that it once did in academe. I have seen feminist colleagues roll their eyes when a student talked about “oppressive patriarchy” because ideology of any kind short circuits thought, a simple binary when issues are far more complex. Most faculty I know don’t choose books to fill quotas but, if there are those who do, then they deprive their students and themselves of the joy of really good books. I just don’t see it at my department.

    As far as those looking for glowing recommendations–how about this for an alternative explanation? There are faculty in large universities who are desperate, not to get such recommendations, but just to get students into their classes (as students trek from the humanities and nations, in the Wilfred Owen phrase, trek from progress). I’m interested in your take on the following class, which my son witnessed at the University of Pittsburgh (he tutored some students taking it). The class involved three works: Paradise Lost, Frankenstein, and The Dark Compass, the latter being (for those who don’t know) a popular fantasy novel. A number of students, I suspect, enrolled in the class because of the Dark Compass but, in the process, were exposed to (and hopefully became enthralled with) a Milton work they otherwise wouldn’t have read. Students should want to real Milton just because he is a dazzling poet–but if they don’t, what’s the next step?

  3. Blade Lawless
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your response to my comment. In my mind it is not only justifiable, but an admirable example of savvy pragmatism, to lure students towards Milton and M. Shelley by means of a modern novel that has been made into a film, but I would maintain that the modern novel must be written in high-quality prose that can compare, if not necessarily in its genial flare then at least in its complete lack of grammatical solecisms, with that of canonical works. I don’t know if The Dark Compass qualifies in that respect–I would like to read the book myself, in fact, because I saw the film adaptation and found it quite imaginative.

    Kudos to your department members if they have in fact refused to follow the pied PC piper. What would most of them think of O’Connor’s traditional use of the pronoun “his” in the sentence, “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste?”

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Well, The Golden Compass (not the Dark Compass, as I called it) is children’s fantasy and not in Milton’s or Shelley’s league. One could say about it what Henry James said about Treasure Island: it may not be great art, but it’s delightful and does well what it aspires to do (or something along those lines). My students get excited by Paradise Lost when they realize they’ve encountered certain passages previously in Pullman’s work–it makes them feel the richness of a tradition. O’Connor is ultimately right but maybe she needs to acknowledge that good teachers must start with where their students are, even when their ultimate aim is to open up the richness of the classics.

    To cite another example, I have seen students become excited about variations of the Arthurian story from reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, a book that I find unreadable. But put that in an Arthurian lit course and they will cheerfully take on Tennyson’s Idylls of a King, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and other challenging works. It’s when works come to them coated in museum dust that many of them (not all of them) turn away. Or don’t give them a chance.

    It’s fine that O’Connor uses “his” since she was writing in a different era. But we all ask our students to use his/her–or more elegantly, to recast the sentence in the plural.

  5. Blade Lawless
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Yes, O’Connor was indeed writing in a different era–an era when the beauty of the English language was untarnished by PC considerations (I’m thinking about the horrible use of plural pronouns to modify singular nouns, or the pathetically solicitous expedient of alternating masculine with feminine pronouns, sentence by sentence, throughout a piece of writing). Until very recent times, presumably no woman took offense at the use of masculine pronouns to refer to mankind, because it was only in the last 50 years or so that it occurred to a feminist fanatic that grammatical gender translates into sexual discrimination. After all, doesn’t the traditional use of feminine pronouns to refer only to female nouns but not to male nouns–while male pronouns must do double duty, standing in for male and female nouns alike–in fact “privilege” female pronouns, lending them a purity and a strength that their waffling male counterparts don’t have? Part of the feminist agenda seems to have been the replacement of the word “sex” with the grammatical term “gender” (a campaign that has succeeded utterly by now). By inducing us to identify people using a word traditionally reserved for grammatical designations, the PC patrol paves the way for a wider acceptance of its view that the use of masculine grammatical terms somehow promotes masculine people.

    Keep up the good work, Robin. I really enjoy and appreciate your blog.

  6. Blade Lawless
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Let me attempt to clarify what I tried ineptly to say about feminine pronouns. Masculine pronouns refer to both males and females in the sense that they refer to people in general. For example, in the sentence, “A person must do his best,” a “person” can be either a male or a female. In the O’Connor sentence, “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste?” the masculine pronoun “his” refers to a noun, “student,” which could designate either a male or a female. Feminine pronouns, on the other hand, refer only to female people, as in the sentence “A woman must do her best.” Traditionally, “her” cannot stand for a generic person, but only for a female person. Feminine pronouns, therefore, have a privileged status in traditional grammatical usage. They maintain their “gender purity,” we might say, while masculine pronouns are not allowed that luxury. As Christina Sommers writes, “Feminists argue that the feminine as the more “marked” gender [grammatically] is the less human gender. This is ridiculous….It actually means that the gender system of English is just as amenable to a feminist interpretation…with the feminine…as the more significant, rather than the more common, gender.”

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