Since yesterday I’ve probably seen more people tweet and retweet about this article than I’ve ever noted about any other: “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” in The New York Times Sunday Review. As an English major and former English teacher, I am disheartened by the main points in the article. (Yet the reaction it has provoked among learned people is encouraging.) I see great value in studying, though perhaps not majoring, in English at the college level. At the same time, the article made me think about some of the ways English is taught at that level and below, down into the secondary and middle school levels.
In some ways, without even realizing it, I use things I developed as an English major every day as a school leader. Majoring in English exposed me to multiple perspectives and cultures and personalities. I became more empathetic, more aware of the complexities of human existence, more thoughtful and nuanced in my responses to the vagaries of life. I became particularly acute to semantics and tone, to that interplay between connotation and denotation; I grasp that language is a limited and powerful tool at the same time. I learned how to take messy ideas and capture them in clear, linear communication.
These skills and outlooks remain essential. In some ways, they have grown more so in this complex and chaotic world. But when we want to measure education by how well people fill in the right bubble, they cease to hold value in our short-term outlook. It’s that limited vision that drives—or, in the case of parents, commands—students to major in whatever leads most quickly to the safest, most high-paying job right away.
I’m fortunate in that, from what I recall, my parents put no such pressure on me. If there were any objections to my majoring in English, they were expressed so quietly that I no longer recall them. I think more than anything they wanted me to love learning. Besides, they were both avid readers, a love passed down to me; and I could think of nothing more pleasurable than reading all sorts of books and discussing ideas. I never worried about job opportunities. Some of that was my naivete; some, blind optimism; some, belief in all I’d been told about a liberal arts education and how major companies wanted people like us. I don’t know how much the latter remains true. It should.
Still, I have to wonder about how English often is taught. I re-read much of my second paragraph, and I suspect it rings truer of possibility than of reality. Yes, the reading exposed me to those things…but I’m not sure my classes did. We didn’t really study literature as a means of examining the human condition. Instead, it became about literature for literature’s sake. About genres and movements and writers speaking to each other across generations. It fit the tweedy stereotype. My understanding is that now this remains true to some degree, but in looking at it more about the human condition, extreme politicization in the form of canon battles can overshadow the broader learning. I’ve seen this creep into lower and lower levels of teaching.
As for the writing, we had to do plenty of it. Except for one professor, though, I don’t recall much feedback on the quality of my writing, by which I mean the prose itself. It was all about content, organization, thesis, format—stuff that matters, for sure, but doesn’t animate the work. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Academic prose is notoriously obtuse, with several contests each year to highlight the worst of it. Yet in the lower grades, most of our writing instruction is designed to prepare students for the writing they will do in college. Surely we can aspire for better. The overwhelming majority of people need to communicate with each other, not with academics.
This last point captures part of the reason for the decline in English majors. For the most part, Americans are a practical people and, as the author admits, “the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter.” I suspect that is tied to what the author also admits, in agreement with my last two paragraphs, “the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities.”
Those are distinct points, but ones which overlap greatly. Teaching the humanities well should automatically include why they matter. Too often, though, it doesn’t. Therein lies the problem not just with the humanities, but also in much of education. Just what is it for? Part of the answer should be not just resume fodder, but relevance for our humanness and humanity.