Going Genteel Into That Good Night?

No, the thoughtful, curious English major will rise again
Steve Bornhoft
Photo by Michael Booini

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore. — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

I was an undergraduate environmental studies major with plans to somehow work as an ecologist before I enrolled in a course, “Ernest Hemingway: Glorified Sports Afield Writer or Literary Giant?”

Apparent to Professor Merrill was my enthusiasm for the class, which involved the reading of Hemingway short stories and novels and Carlos Baker’s biography of the man. The professor and I became friends. We fished the steelhead run on the Sioux River in Northern Wisconsin together. And, as the course was drawing to a close, he suggested that I could do better than environmental studies; I could become an English major.

In a move that I never have regretted, I turned away from petri dishes and microscopes and dove into Norton anthologies.

So it is that I was grabbed by a headline over a story in a recent issue of The New Yorker: THE END OF THE ENGLISH MAJOR.

In a piece only an English major could love, staff writer Nathan Heller documents plummeting enrollment in English and history majors at schools across the country.

Heller pauses at Columbia University where English professor James Shapiro tells him that those enrollment declines are likely irreversible due to the relentless presence of handheld devices and continuously generated social blather and digital stuff.

Fumes Shapiro, “Go to a play now and watch the flashing screens an hour in, as people who like to think of themselves as cultured Cannot! Stop! Themselves!”

The professor points, too, to the disappearance of financial support for the humanities at the national level. Funding began to evaporate at the beginning of the economic crisis in 2007. Dollars are flowing instead to STEM programs.

Pamela Paul, writing in The New York Times, notes Heller’s story and contends that English is being “taught” in middle and high schools in such a way that students hate the subject before they ever get to college. She cites Common Core standards that promote nonfiction over fiction; book bans; and the “excising of those books containing passages that might be deemed antiquated or lie outside the median of student body experiences” as factors that are curtailing the teaching of literature.

“The books that remain are read in a manner intended to leach all pleasure from the process,” writes Paul, who finds that teachers who might otherwise instill a love for reading in students are limited to teaching to tests.

The result? “The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences — like having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” Heller quotes Harvard professor of English Amanda Claybaugh.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the teaching of English and English majors as quaint. Some suggest that even as they become scarce, they may become prized.

I remember well a conversation I had with FSU professor of English and poet of many distinctions Barbara Hamby, who told me that employers find English majors valuable because as students, “They learn to work in groups and to constructively give and receive criticism.”

Paul argues that English majors will be well-suited for tomorrow’s workforce  because they are “intellectually curious, truth-seeking, undaunted by unfamiliar ideas, able to read complex works and distill their meaning in clear prose.”

“Career studies have shown that humanities majors, with their communication and analytical skills, often end up in leadership jobs,” Heller writes. “To that extent, the value of the educated human touch is likely to hold in a storm of technological and cultural change.”

At this writing, two banks that relied heavily on high-tech clients have failed, sending shock waves through the financial system. Maybe if they had had an English major on their boards, outcomes would have been different.

Steve Bornhoft, Executive Editor

Categories: Education, From The Editor