With apologies to Twain, the death of the English degree has been greatly exaggerated.
Fear is a prime motivator. Just as disconcerting, or “bad”, news compels us to pay attention more than “good” news, it seems every year someone puts online the faux-provocative stance that the English degree is “dead” and that the humanities are doomed. People may read more on tablets or laptops than they do physicals texts but that does not mean people read less. In fact, we may read and consume even more. Consider how easy it is to read online articles from The New Yorker or The Atlantic instead of having to wait for the mail to arrive.
It is almost as if this runs in a cycle. Regardless of topic, political perspective, religious (or lack of) affiliation, the internet is run on manufactured outrage about various topics and the discipline of English is no exception. I would not really be surprised if tomorrow someone posted online a click-bait article entitled “In 30 years, no teenagers will read books.” In such an article they might point to a misleading but often quoted statistic, that as a percentage, there are fewer undergraduates majoring in English than 30 years ago. While this might be technically true, the reason is less likely they are rejecting English, or the humanities in general, but rather there are so many more majors to choose from. How many students in 1987 were majoring in Information Technology, Online Media, or Gender Studies?
About fifteen years ago, when I was in graduate school, there was a talk given entitled “Does poetry matter?” Well, for poetry to “matter”, we have define what “matter” means. What are the metrics? Will it treat cancer? No. Will it forever change me? Eh, maybe, maybe not. But poetry does matter. Every day in America the poetry of the Psalms are read at weddings, funerals, or someone’s kitchen table.
I think the reason for this anxiety and supposed existential crisis is our world and our culture have changed quickly and sometimes without warning. Events ranging from the advent of the iPhone to the 9/11 terror attacks have changed higher education. But not everything new is bad; it is just different. We have to learn new technology regularly now but hopefully it is to our benefit. As someone who teaches in an English department, I can testify my students benefit as well. Consider how much easier email has made communication between faculty and students. Consider how much cheaper and convenient it is for an English department to do a Skype interview for an open position than paying for a flight, hotel, and a car rental.
To varying degrees, all the majors that undergraduates study are relevant and worth pursing. Otherwise, a college or university would not invest the considerable resources required of it. Many times, the reason a discipline is deleted from a school’s course catalog is not due to its’ irrelevance but rather the tacit acknowledgement that the college or university cannot maintain a rigorous commitment to a program. Soon after I received my bachelor’s degree, my alma matter disbanded its’ interior design program because it had lost accreditation. The school realized that it could not afford to invest funds into beefing up the program to regain accreditation and rather than feature an unaccredited program, it was discontinued.
With apologies to Mark Twain, the news of the English major’s death has been greatly exaggerated. There will always be people who hunger for it, even and sometimes especially if they are told it would be prudent not to do so. It is a distinctly American tradition to chart one’s own course.