Higher Education

what counts when counting English majors

The NY Times is back at counting English majors. Even Nate Silver has chimed in. This time it’s the counter-argument: that there hasn’t really been a decline in students. There are a three things in these arguments that I find interesting.

  1. Comparisons about numbers of majors typically use the late 60s or 1970 as a starting point, but represented an unusual peak in humanities majors. Numbers were lower in the previous decades.
  2. This bubble and its bursting have to do with gender. In the 60s an increasing number of women attend college but their choices of major were socially constrained. In the 70s and 80s women had more options and moved out of the humanities into business and the sciences.
  3. The suggestion that we should consider humanities degrees as a % of the total population rather than just actual college students. The relative decline of English as a share of total majors reflects the fact that a new class of students are attending college and are selecting professional degrees rather than the humanities. Really English majors have always comprised about 1-2% of the college age population.

I wonder if this is meant to make the humanities feel better. “Don’t worry. Your numbers aren’t declining. As it turns out the humanities never were very popular or relevant.”

This leaves me with a couple questions.

  • I wonder if there are differences in how these numbers play out among different kinds of institutions. You would guess that liberal arts colleges would have a higher share of humanities majors. But what about public, comprehensive colleges versus the various kinds of research universities?
  • Rather than counting majors, what about counting students in classes? Are students taking fewer humanities classes than they once did?

I can only guess at those answers. One could assume that large universities with their extensive professional schools and STEM research would have relatively smaller numbers of humanities majors. And, given the extensive accreditation requirements of various professional programs, there are far fewer electives in a college education, which means there are fewer students just showing up in humanities courses. Just looking at UB over the last decade, we have been essentially steady in terms of total numbers of students graduating, but we have seen a fairly significant decline in our share of majors, primarily because the university has seen a rapid expansion in the number of international students.

So one can read these numbers as an argument for saying that the humanities are doing fine. They are as popular and relevant as ever. Maybe. Or, one could think of it this way. Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you owned a diner in a small town. For decades you’ve had a steady local clientele. Then, suburban sprawl increased the size of your town. Along with it came the Starbucks, etc. Now there are a lot more people in town, but your business hasn’t changed. Sure, your clientele as a percentage of all the people in the county hasn’t changed, but  among the people who might reasonably choose to visit your diner, the percentage has dropped considerably. There are a lot more options out there. So are we still doing fine? Are we still relevant?

Another way to think about this is starting points for data. I think the argument pointing out that starting in 1970 is misleading is a great point. One of the issues though is that a lot of English departments expanded during this historical moment. Maybe they think they should still be as large as they were 40 years ago. So looking at data from 1950 is helpful, but maybe we need to think about earlier dates. For example, before the second industrial revolution in the US, as I understand it, college degrees were mostly professional degrees for doctors, lawyers, clergy, etc. The late 19th century brought us normal schools for training public school teachers and professional degrees for business, engineering, and so on. So when did humanities/liberal arts degrees begin as something separable from a professional degree? Generally speaking, the idea of departments with undergraduate majors begins in the late 19th century but takes a couple decades to propagate. Then, of course, we get the Great Depression and WWII.

So what does this mean? I think it means this. Yes, it is bogus to look at the large numbers in the late 60s, note the decline in English, and say this proves we are doing something wrong. But it is also bogus to look at the lower numbers from the late 40s or 50s and suggest that what we have seen since is a regression to the mean. Instead, we might start by saying that the idea of having a college major barely existed a century ago. It’s a little amusing to consider how the 1880s to 1910s paralleled our current period in terms of a rapidly expanding student base and changing values for going to college (then, like now, it was all about getting a better job in a new economy). The thing is, the contemporary English major grew out of that historical moment. And in the 1950s, when higher education was born again, English expanded with it. But as everyone points out, that popularity was fleeting.

I suppose one can look at those statistics and take it as evidence that the humanities can continue to trundle along as it has for the last 30 years or so. I will stick by my argument that the second industrial revolution, which spurred the growth of higher education, and created a foundation for the value of the print literacy that English has historically provided, has been supplanted by new economic engines. We shouldn’t be looking at the 1950s. We should be looking at the 1850s. From 1850 to 1920, the role of rhetoric and literary study in American universities was completed transformed because of the economic effects of the industrial revolution. Might the same be said of the shift from 1950-2020?

3 replies on “what counts when counting English majors”

When computer companies were first starting, they often hired liberal arts majors, as well as math and science majors, and trained them in house. Companies no longer want to do their own training for many reasons. They want people already trained from college. The requirements for specific training that companies are placing on higher education are new in many respects.


But evidence from interviews with employers suggest they still value liberal arts majors–there’s a cultural zeitgeist that convinces many (students and faculty both) that professional degrees are what employers look for, but this may not be an accurate impression. The Chronicle has been writing about this lately.


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