The Decline and Fall of the English Major

This essay is yet another reminder of how I must work harder to try to teach my students the long-term value of what they learn in my classes. Students are so focused on the present — this semester, this course, this assignment, this rubric, this grade — that an assignment that requires critical thinking skills can seem overwhelming. I once had a student who panicked when she learned the final exam would present her with a poem that we hadn’t already gone over in class, and a question intended to help me evaluate her ability to analyze and interpret a literary text. She wanted instead to be evaluated on her ability to memorize and spit back the authoritative, presumably “correct” answers that I (or SparkNotes) provided for her.

There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply. What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature. Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own. —