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Bad Defense of the English Major in New York Times

This past Sunday, the New York Times posted an editorial by a writing teacher lamenting the decline of the English major in today’s universities:

The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times… Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities…

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science.

The writer believes that one result of this decline is that students (and hence graduates) are now less effective at writing clearly and are losing the “rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you” which accompanies an appreciation of and familiarity with great literature.

While the title of this post may suggest otherwise, I don’t disagree with the writer on the value of writing and literature. On a personal level, it was only after I left college that I began to appreciate the perspective on life that the (sadly) limited literature I am familiar with afforded me. On a more practical level, I’ve also witnessed firsthand otherwise intelligent individuals struggle in achieving their professional goals as a result of poor writing and communication skills.

However, what jumped out to me about the editorial was less the message on the intrinsic value of English or the writer’s thoughtful criticisms of how humanities courses are taught today, but more how the writer effectively brushed aside the underlying financial reasons pushing students away from declaring English (or another humanity) as a major. Its easy for the writer to argue that “a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise” as an answer to the question of “what is an English major good for?” But that sort of sense, while personally valuable, doesn’t pay off student loans. Its easy to criticize the “new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college”, but it doesn’t account for the little choice that parents and students have in the matter when trying to make their checkbooks balance.

And therein lies the weakness of most impassioned pleas for students to pursue English majors and humanities instead of “more practical” majors: we don’t live in the world of the below For Lack of a Better Comic:

Comic #35

We live in a world where, sadly, students need to find jobs that can cover their debts. And the pragmatic reaction for the humanities educator is to either find a way to make their majors better suited to helping students find and compete for jobs that can cover their financial burdens or find new ways to enrich students who have chosen to pursue the “narrow vocational emphasis” they have been forced to.

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