“It’s nothing that drastic yet, but it’s something we’re going to keep an eye on,” says Eric Walker, chairman and professor of English at Florida State. Professor Walker speaks of his own university in an article by Colleen Flaherty in Slate(Jan 2015). I hope his view isn’t myopic where nationally the trend is still downward. The Modern Language Association reports a drop in English graduate degrees from 55,518 in 2009 to 52,489 in 2013. At George Mason University there were 800 English majors in 1994. There will be 422 this fall. At George Mason the English major was dropped as a requirement for the certificate in secondary English teaching. There are other indications in this article that English major enrollment is tied to whether or not the major is required for professional certification or as part of core curriculum.
Part of the problem can be charged to the general notion that English like other humanities(history, philosophy, etc.) are not “practical” vocationally. Global studies and criminology strike students as more “pre-professional.” And yet, for pre-law, colleges still recommend English, history and philosophy as excellent preparation for law school. And certainly the forms of rhetoric(exposition, argument, persuasion, etc.) are “pre-professional” in every pursuit. Perhaps four quarters or two semesters of English composition are seen as sufficient. They are not.
After all, when a student studies the work of Shakespeare, Melville, Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Jane Austen and countless others, he or she practices analysis, critical thinking and interpretation. Captain Ahab and Howell’s Silas Lapham have much to teach us about human behavior. In a whole lifetime we will never meet as many personalities in their diversity as Shakespeare gives us in his characters. And how often does any one of us actually meet a Willy Loman? To meet these figures is to live more fully. . Meet Iago and you’ll recognize him in life. You’ll see him coming.
Maybe a full-blown major is not necessary, but certainly a generous helping of humanities courses are. And yes, it is only required courses that force us to do, even for a short period, what we do not normally do — confront the “other.” And who among us does not need help dealing with the “other.” Lets heft up the demand for humanities experiences. Create courses that do that. Humanities majors will follow. I do not know when the first college major was offered, but I do know human beings were dong literary, historical and philosophical study well before each became an “academic concentration.”.
We should be less concerned about how many English majors we have as economic “supply” for our universities than we are about how many students are at least exposed to deep and profound experiences in the humanities. As Matthew Arnold would understand, when a society loses touch with the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” that society will have regressed to barbarism. Matthew Arnold was not an English major. But in his day humanistic studies were the privilege of the few and the well-fixed. Then and it seems now, most folks cannot afford in money and time, the luxury of a deep and abiding experience with literature — let alone the “best.” Somehow society must at least provide exposure to the humanities — just in case the unknowing might find them very useful everyday at work and after work.. Many people have discovered that English and the humanities on the shelves of life are right next to bread, water and livelihood.