William M. Chace writes a thoughtful article on the decline of English as a college major and, more generally, as a coherent discipline. First the numbers. In one generation (1970-2003), the number of students majoring in English dropped almost in half, from 7.6% to 3.9%, reflecting a general decline in the number of humanities majors (business is apparently now the most popular major). Chace offers several reasons for this, but the main one is this:
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. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
I would add, they have distanced themselves from the young people who might be interested in using books to think about life and its questions. Among many other interesting arguments and observations, Chace reports that Harvard University recently replaced its survey of English literature for undergraduates with four new "affinity groups" - "Arrivals," "Poets," "Diffusions," and "Shakespeares." Sounds inspiring. And clear. (Incidentally, I had heard that Shakespeare didn't exist, but not that there were several of him.) The idea is that the content of the old survey will "trickle down" to students, but if no one takes thought that it happen, how likely is that? To his credit, Chace cautiously defends the idea of a tradition of English literature, and even intimates that those in the field ought to have a "sense of duty" towards the works of English or American literature. "Without such traditions," he concludes, "civil societies have no moral compass to guide them." It will be interesting to see how (or whether) the profession responds.