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.