Vanishing From US Colleges: Majors in English

'New Yorker' explores plunging enrollments in the humanities at universities
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 5, 2023 10:35 AM CST
Vanishing Breed on US Campuses: English Majors
   (Getty / Chinnapong)

The headline is stark: "The End of the English Major." But after reading Nathan Heller's deep dive in the New Yorker into the state of the humanities at US colleges and universities, it doesn't seem like too much of an overstatement. Stats tell a big part of the story: "During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third," writes Heller. He ticks off example after example of the number of such majors at schools around the US in "free fall," from the Ivy League on down. A large factor appears to be the bang-for-the-buck factor: With today's tuition, it's not too enticing for students to graduate saddled with debt but without a nice paycheck waiting in the field of tech or science. As one 2021 Harvard grad who majored in molecular and cellular biology and minored in linguistics puts it: "I view the humanities as very hobby-based."

But debt is only part of the picture. Tech is another. Heller talks to an English professor at Columbia who laments that he read five novels a month until the 2000s. "If I read one a month now, it’s a lot." He's too busy listening to podcasts and reading websites. And from a Harvard prof: “The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she says. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.” Schools are struggling with how to respond to the plunging enrollments—Heller uses the word "crisis"—with some contemplating ditching humanities majors altogether. Read the full story, which digs into a wide range of the cultural and financial factors at play. (Read more Longform stories.)

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