The Humanities as an Endangered Species

While there are those who sense that the appreciation of literature and the humanities are slowly fading in our instant-messaging generation, here are some facts.  In an article entitled “The Decline of the English Department” in the current issue of The American Scholar, William M. Chace presents the following data from the academic years between 1970/71 to 2003/04, showing the change in college majors:

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

The little bio at the bottom of the article tells me that William M. Chace has taught at Berkeley, Stanford, Wesleyan, and Emory, and served as president of the last two.  So the figures here do carry some weight and urgency.

These numbers are indeed distressing.  If such a trend continues, chances are college English departments would disappear from the face of this earth faster than beluga whales, and philosophy and religious studies as an academic discipline could soon fall off like leaves in autumn.


Chace points out that there was once a time when majoring in English literature represented an idyllic pursuit.   It used to reflect the appreciation of a historical tradition and literary culture.  It was a declaration, even a defiance, showing that education was not at all about getting a job.  It was a decision made with much self-reflection, innocence, and yes, an idealistic fervor.  Here’s his own reminiscence, an English major in the 50’s and 60’s :

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.

Alexander W. Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that in the mid 60’s, more than 80% of college freshmen rated nothing was more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life”.  Less than 45% of them felt “being very well off financially’ was a priority.

The trend saw its reversal by 1977, when financial goals had surged past philosophical ones.  By 2001, more than 70% of undergraduates rated financial success as a much more important pursuit, leaving behind 40% clinging to the search for meaning as their prime objective in college.

But my concern is very simple, and it needs no statistics to sound the alarm:  Who is reading all the ‘great books’?  If the English departments are fighting for their raison d’etre, can Literature survive?

Or, can we still hold on to the idealistic view that Literature has intrinsic value of its own, that in great books, we can still find glimpses of how we should live?  Further, in the face of strangling economic reality, can we still bask in the goodness of beauty and not become a laughing stock if we insist on the pursuit of meaning?


To read the article ‘The Decline of the English Department’ in The American Scholar, CLICK HERE.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “The Humanities as an Endangered Species”

  1. Arti, my response to your comments on my Labor Day post speak directly to this issue.

    In 1964, many of my newly-graduated classmates chose a “liberal arts” school and majors that included literature, history, religious studies or art and music. They had the luxury of time. They could spend four years immersing themselves in the classics without concern for immediate employment. And many of them had no concern for money. Their parents were funding their education. For women, especially, college was understood as a place to become a bit more refined while husband-hunting.

    Life has changed, for sure. The pursuit of the almighty dollar has something to do with it. But so does the increased bureaucratization of life, and the common understanding of college degrees as professional union cards.

    In this environment, can we believe literature has intrinsic value? Of course. In rocky economic times, can we appreciate the goodness of beauty without becoming a laughing stock? Yes, even if it takes some creativity.

    The irony is that by leaving the corporate/professional world to become a manual laborer, I’ve made it possible for myself to begin pursuing that liberal education I passed by in order to be “employable” when I graduated from college.

    And where is my classroom? Let’s see…

    Where have I been introduced to Vermeer? Why do I grin when I look out my own third-story window? Who brings me coffee and beignets to enjoy on my trip to New Orleans? Where might I have bumped up against that macro lens that I want Santa to bring me for Christmas? What could stir me to pick up a book by a Japanese author?

    Ummm-hmmm… Welcome to blogging, the new Academy. Post by post, and reader by reader, the search for meaning and the appreciation of culture is being revivified. Thanks for helping to make it happen!


    1. Linda,

      “Welcome to blogging, the new Academy” … hey, that’s a refreshing thought! Come to think of it, I’ve been a student all along these past two years. You’ve put it into words. We do learn from each others’ blogs, getting the education we didn’t even in school, or at work. Blogging scores again.


  2. Have you seen the syllabi of the English departments at many schools these days? “Great books…?” The philosophy was changing when I went to a very conservative school in the mid 80’s.

    I’m with Linda, the blogosphere may become the new salon, dedicated to learning for its own sake. It may well be the last salon dedicated to such a lofty idea.


    1. Easy and Elegant Life,

      I haven’t seen the syllabi of English courses at high schools since my son had gone to college. Now that he’s in third year university (Canada), and majoring in history, I’m glad they’re still reading the ‘great books’. But I’m just wondering whether a young person would check out War and Peace for pleasure reading if it’s not required for a course.

      And yes, a quick surf would readily show that Literature and the Humanities are alive and well in the blogosphere… it might well be the final frontier for education!

      Thanks for your input!


  3. Arti,

    Dr. Chace’s article is printing as I type this. I want to be able to read it, scribble on it, ponder it as a solid. It is making me rethink my entire life, since I entered college–as an English major–in 1977, the year he claims tolled the death knell for the humanities. I’ll be back when I’ve thought it through. He is, alas, correct on many levels. And yes, it is completely ironic that business as a discipline is growing, despite the current economic climate. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” How many years before that reference (probably misquoted) has no meaning?


    1. ds,

      An explanation could be that we need more education in business to be able to handle our economy better (?) Anyway, education is one thing, human nature is another. It’s more like how do we deal with greed, or materialism… you see, these are topics of the humanities! I await your further input.


  4. I’ve been thinking about this all day:

    “With the books in front of us, we were taught the skills of interpretation. Our tasks were difficult, the books … were masterly, and our teacher possessed an authority it would have been “bootless” (his word) to question.”

    The academic world he describes was marked by what Paulo Freire calls the “banking” method of education . The professor deposits knowledge into the student, and the student’s role is to say “thank you”.

    When I entered college in 1964, it was that kind of world. When I emerged with my master’s in 1990, the changes in academia were stunning – and learning was much more stimulating and fun.

    The fact is that academic institutions will continue to change, but the books, theories, and philosophies remain, and people will continue to engage them.

    While I’m sure the good professor’s concern is real – and valid – there also may be a touch of nostalgia for a world he loved, and which has irretrievably changed. I’m reminded of a quotation from Owens Lee Pomeroy:

    Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect…


    1. Linda

      I smile as I read your comment… you’re sharp. Yes, in his article, he goes on to detail the changes in the academia, and the social factors of these changes. The docile nature of the post war students were transformed by the various social reforms in the 70’s and forward. Of course, the winds of change are from all directions, but some he notes are from within… e.g. the present tenure system wherein getting published is more important than teaching students to read literature. You really should click on the link, Linda. I’m sure you’ll find the article stimulating.

      As for the quote… it gives me a bigger and deeper smile. Many thanks!


  5. Say, Say! Very well said Arti. I so appreciate your insight and your mind…


    Thanks for visiting. You’d find the article interesting … Berkeley, Standford… your neck of the woods.



  6. This is an interesting post. I knew there was a declining interest in humanities, but I hadn’t realized quite how much.


    This is the first time I’ve encountered actual data… they’re indeed troubling. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. You’ve an interesting blog there yourself… I’ll definitely visit often.



  7. Oy vay. I read your terrific post after a faculty meeting in our English department yesterday in which we learned that our budget will be cut by 20% in the next two years. And that is possibly not even the worst of it.

    I hear the spectrum on this, Arti. On one end, those who support the canon. On the other, those who want students exposed to all media and texts and it isn’t as important what they read. We know they read, even if it is only text messages.

    Our department has had to make a better argument of late in its own defense in the bigger picture here at the university. Careers are all the rage, and what furthers them, and all that. Almost like becoming a Voc-tech school, which we all cringe at in our department. As an adviser, I find myself repeating a mantra at least once a day: A close reading and critical analysis of English literature develops skills that are useful in any walk of life. In fact, we have had students hired recently because of their English degrees, in addition to other skills and experience.

    I will do as DS said and print out the article so I can read it in the studio tonight after reading a chapter of James’ The Ambassadors, which I keep pushing through for exactly the reasons addressed here. And no doubt I’ll be back.

    Thank you for the rich food for our minds, dear friend.

    By the way, I don’t know how our English majors fare in comparison to the rest of the university in numbers, but our numbers have increased since I took my job 8 years ago. I advise over 1,000 English majors.


    1. Ruth,

      My congrats to your English department, able to swim against the tide.

      You’re right about both ends of the spectrum. I went back for my Masters in Teaching ESL a couple of years ago, and the definition of ‘reading’ has shifted to include visuals, graphics, texts, product labels, forms, road signs, … etc. I can fully understand how a person would need such skills to function in our post-modern society.

      At the other end of the spectrum, as you mention, is the so called ‘canon’… of all cultures, mind you, not just Western. It takes a little different perspective to teach this kind of ‘reading’. It’s the appreciation of Literature, the interpretation of implications and subtexts, the deciphering of a language that’s deep in meaning… or, allow me to simplify it, to decipher the road signs of life.

      I see no conflicts in them. It’s just that we need to teach both. And it’s my humble opinion that college English Departments are entrusted to teach the latter, if not as a calling, at least as a responsibility.

      Thank you for sharing!


  8. I recognize that I am arguing on quite the opposite tack as what I posted at Linda’s (shoreacres) Labor Day post.

    But this is what English majors do: see from different sides.


    Again, it’s just both sides of the spectrum… and you’re so right, we all need to see the complexity of the issues, the different perspectives. I think Linda definitely understands. Thanks for the addendum.



  9. I teach college English, but I don’t generally teach English majors and instead teach things like Freshman Composition, so I see a lot of students who don’t care about reading at all. But I see some who do care as well, and I see students who are excited about reading. I think that just because English majors are declining that doesn’t necessarily mean people are reading less. I don’t really know how much reading is going on compared to, say a few decades ago, although I’m quite sure we read tons more than we did, say a few centuries ago!


    I agree … I think with the new technology we have, we’re much more accessible to Literature and books than people in the past. A look at the lit blogs would show the enthusiasm of those who are book lovers. As noted by some commenters, the blogosphere is really an exciting, new venue for sharing and learning in our post-modern age. Thanks for your comment!



  10. I certainly do understand Ruth’s point, and will happily argue either side of the issue.

    It’s slightly ironic that my education helps make it possible for me to be an effective – what? advocate? interpreter? apologist? – for those who’d never, ever show up in places like this blog, let alone an English lit class.

    But I also know this. More often than you’d think, the non-degreed, less educated, poorly-read and language skill-impaired person feels precisely like the woman who never shows up in church because she thinks her clothes unsuitable. Or, like the man afraid of being laughed at or embarrassed because he doesn’t know the rituals.

    The more I think about it, the more the analogy with the church seems useful. Is the point institutional preservation, or communication of the message? Perhaps we need literary missionaries!

    One of the things I’ve done is make up a “blog business card” in the colors of my page, with the image of my lovely lady, the URL and my email address. I had a thousand printed up, and I distribute them everywhere. I hand them out on the docks, too, without prejudging who might or might not be interested. I’ve handed them to grocery store clerks and ferryboat attendants – any time there’s an opening, a reason to say, “You might be interested ….”

    Amazingly, some of those folks have come back later having read not only my blog, but the blogs of folks who comment there or to whom I link. And best of all, they’re reading not because it’s a requirement for a class, but because something catches their attention and interest.

    I just noticed the title of Dr. Chace’s article is “The Decline of the English Department”. Perhaps a bit more passion for English would help to enliven the department!


    You sure have some innovative ideas! About the ‘blog business card’ and the idea of ‘Literary missionary’. I think the main point is to bring Literature and good writing to the masses in accessible ways. ‘Universals’ by definition are shared by all, the very essence of being human. A good piece of writing is simply the vehicle carrying them. Anyone should be able to enjoy and get on for the ride. Position open now is for a good tour guide.



  11. I’m back after reading Dr. Chace’s article.

    I wish I had a handle on his data to know if English majors have shrunk in relation to the growth of Business majors, etc.? Since our major numbers have grown, I am thinking that is possible. That English majors have not decreased necessarily, but that they have not grown at the same rate as other departmental majors? Certainly my colleagues who go to the MLA every year could tell me.

    As I read his piece, I heard Prof. Seaton in my department loud and clear. I have sat through TWO YEARS of the programs committee and entire faculty reworking our curriculum after too long a time of not doing so. I was reading familiar words as represented by the various “factions” and fields within our department. He is right on, and Prof. Seaton, like him, bemoaned how the English department is not the place for culture wars or social theories. (Believe me, we have Marxist theory, feminist theory, et al, represented in our English classes.) As the adviser and not professor myself, I had the privilege to sit back week in and week out and listen to my colleagues argue these same points, with Chace/Seaton on one end of the spectrum (the right?). While I wholeheartedly agree with the Chace/Seaton view of teaching the great books and authors, I also hear the next generation of professors say, “but what about post-colonial this and postmodern that and what about African American writers, etc.?”

    I don’t agree with Chace that the primary reason for decline of English majors (if there really is one, as I questioned above) is that the great books aren’t being taught. I think it’s about the changing culture of parenting, which he did mention, and that parents are afraid of their children being destitute on the street after paying an arm and a leg for their education with no job at the other end in promise. I can’t tell you how many students change their major to English after first trying Business, Finance, pre-med, which they began for the parents’ sake.

    We always say in our department “if only” we could limit our number of majors! Clearly I need help with the thousand of them (which won’t happen: no money). But one way to “limit” them is to keep the courses challenging and not dumb them down for students who aren’t reading as they used to. So with our new curriculum is an increased drive to expect more of our students in reading and writing skills, not less. If students drop out of the major for that reason, all the better! Too many of them think it’s an “easy” major now.

    Sorry, I wish we could sit and chat face to face, all of us. It’s obviously a pertinent issue for me personally.


    1. Ruth,

      Yes, I was hoping to see some sources for the data too. Maybe your colleagues could contact him. Regarding the newer varieties of literature, we can still benefit from being exposed to an eclectic selections: post-modern, critical, liberal, feminist, world, comparative … or whatever. This is what a ‘liberal arts’ education is all about. Again, I see no conflict with the old ‘canon’. Remember my post on Top 100 Books of All Times (Newsweek), none of the books is written after 1987. Now that’s a bit troubling, don’t you think?

      As for meeting up and chat face to face, that would be the ultimate blogging experience!


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