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May 3, 2023

SPARACIO | Where Did All The English Majors Go?

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The idea of an English major (or of one studying the humanities) occupies a particular figment of the artistic imagination. The proverbial bookworm sits on a bench with a cup of coffee. A hunched figure curled up at the mahogany desk surrounded by an endless spread of papers that decrescendo from desk to floor, messy handwriting in the margins, tweed jackets and doc martens. The English major has become its own character with the help of Hollywood, glossy college brochures and the imaginations of people who scroll through Instagram and help cultivate our imagistic society. Yet every English major I’ve met at Cornell has different interests and a diverse set of ambitions counter to this imaginative illusion. As an English major, you learn how to write the right way, how to think: by unthinking what you thought you thought. In the classroom, you become implicated in novels, you become witness to realities that you didn’t know existed, you string together words and watch language fall apart and you do a whole lot of reading (sometimes even reading the unreadable).

Nathan Heller’s article in The New Yorker “The End Of The English Major” detailed the declining rates of students majoring in English. According to Heller “The study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third,” and the enrollment in the humanities in the United States has declined by seventeen percent. Often a correlation is drawn between the number of students who pursue the humanities and the affluence of the economy. When the economy is growing students are more likely to take risks and pursue a major in the humanities. In the post-war boom of the 1950s, many students gravitated towards the humanities. There was an increase in creative writing programs as many World War II veterans wanted to understand and write about their experiences at war. Enrollments in the humanities declined in the 1970s during a period of stagflation but recovered once the economy became more secure. However, after the Great Recession of 2008 enrollments in the humanities declined and have ever since been “falling faintly” like the snow (in James Joyce’s “The Dead”). The continual decline in enrollments since 2008 has been puzzling, though possible explanations include the hollowing of the middle class and the strong emphasis placed on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). 

I spoke to the Chair of the Department of Literatures in English, Prof. Andrew Galloway, who told me that while the number of English majors at Cornell has declined, the number of students participating in the minor has increased. He said, “We’ve lost as many majors as we’ve gained in minors over the last 10 years.” Ten years ago approximately 100 students majored in English and within the past few years, the number has oscillated between 50 and 60 students pursuing the major. Ten years ago approximately 10 students pursued the English minor and now between 50 and 60 students pursue the minor. The number of students taking English classes has slightly increased from 10 years ago, when 2,361 students enrolled in classes to 2022 when 2,515 students enrolled in English classes. This paints a more complicated picture of the falling enrollments in English, as many students still pursue and find a need for English classes. 

The English major is incredibly diverse and has a lot to offer students, particularly at a time when communication is widely expanding on social media. The need to understand language and rhetoric has never been more important. When information is placed out of context within a 250-character Twitter caption, the ability to read actively and critically is important and can help prevent the spread of mis/disinformation. The English major teaches both how to read and how to read the world around you. According to Prof. Galloway, the English major “is a field of cultural history, complex language analysis, form in language and the functions of narrative and of particular stories, ethical commitment both in the sense that there needs to be an assessment of culture and history through a literary lens, but also a sense of wanting to do justice to literary materials to really understand where they are coming from in a different world from our own and indeed in our own world…” The English major expands the understanding, perspective and imaginative capabilities of human beings. English majors learn how to write clearly and how to construct vivid arguments. They develop skills that are translatable to any profession which is why English majors go on to pursue careers in everything you can think of (media, education, technology, finance/consulting, government, real estate, law, hospitality, medicine, etc.) The English major gives life to multiple ways of viewing the world and teaches students to empathize with others. 

These days I sign my papers off by proclaiming that I have not utilized ChatGPT, a possible threat to the English major (and even to the human condition). Though we must ensure that the English major does not get lost in translation as society continues to shift toward employing this technology (which can be useful in many circumstances). There is no doubt that persuasive writing and innovative thought can have a broad impact on society. I recently attended a lecture where the speaker Prof. David Feldshuh detailed that he pursued a career in medicine in order to have a direct impact on society and ended up finding that his play Miss Evers’ Boys had a much larger effect on society (in his opinion, than his work as a doctor). The fact that dictators, state legislators, and some members of Congress have moved to ban books in the past (and recent past!) conveys the power that books have in society. Books illuminate the human condition for us like no other medium, whether that concerns what curriculum to teach and what books should be added to the expanding canon, or what we read for lifelong thinking and pleasure.

As Joan Didion states in The White Album, “We tell stories in order to live.” So when deciding what major “to be or not to be” choose the English major. 

Rebecca Sparacio is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Her column The Space Between runs every other Tuesday this semester.