The Humanities Matter

In the latest American Scholar William Chace describes a disturbing downward trend in the number of students enrolled in English Departments, as well as other departments that study the Humanities. When I was teaching at Reed College, the English Department was always the most “popular.” There were years when Psychology ran neck and neck with English, but that was never for very long. And around the time I left the academic fray, the enrollments in the Biology Department were close to those in English.

Of course, this was at a liberal arts college where a common course in the Humanities is required of all entering students with an option to continue on in their sophomore year. But even when I left the college in the late nineties, I could see what lay ahead. When I began teaching at Reed, there were two students enrolled in the Economics Department and by the time I left, there were almost many Economic majors as there were in English. This is at a college where serious young individuals, even if a little quirky, come to study and where there are no courses in Business.

Yet Chace reports that the study of Business is now the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. The figures say it all: In 1970/71 the percent of majors in English declined from 7.6 percent to 3.9 percent. In contrast, undergraduate majors in Business increased from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent. Chace writes,

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent.

There are really two questions: What are the causes for this sharp decline in English and the Humanities? And second, what can be done to redress it?

To be sure these trends parallel the apparent decline of reading in this country, the steady demise of one independent bookstore after another, and the rising tide of mobile phones, social networks, and various modes of electronic communication. We are no longer a people of the book, but rather one of the screen.

Chace notes there are several reasons for the decline but the fundamental one “is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.”

Pretty strong words, although they reflect those I often hear from others. I’ve not taken a course in an English Department and I have come to its subject matter through the back door so to speak. The love that I have for literature has nothing to do with critical studies or exotic theories of the text or its interpretation. Rather it is precisely for the very reasons Chace claims are missing from the current curriculum to say nothing of the great pleasure and truths that I gain from the reading experience itself.

Without a doubt, there is also the matter of the enormous cost of attending a private college where courses in English and the Humanities have always had their home. But there is still a place for instruction in these disciplines in the less costly public institutions that are primarily concerned in instruction in applied fields with direct economic payoff.

Chace suggests that to reverse the declining enrollments in the faculty must take pains to return to a more coherent curriculum and to the “rock-solid fact that [literature] can indeed amuse, delight, and educate.” He argues that courses in all the Humanistic disciplines should be taught in terms of the “intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom.”

I concur: the courses in Humanities I was fortunate enough to take as an undergraduate continue to have an enormous impact on my life and on whatever understanding I have acquired about the world. I quote the writer, Orhan Pamuk: “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.”