More Counting of English Majors

I think [Alex Reid][] has it right in terms of how to phrase the question about what is happening with undergraduate education in general and in humanities (read English here) majors in particular:

> Yes, it is bogus to look at the large numbers in the late 60s, note the decline in English, and say this proves we are doing something wrong. But it is also bogus to look at the lower numbers from the late 40s or 50s and suggest that what we have seen since is a regression to the mean. Instead, we might start by saying that the idea of having a college major barely existed a century ago. It’s a little amusing to consider how the 1880s to 1910s paralleled our current period in terms of a rapidly expanding student base and changing values for going to college (then, like now, it was all about getting a better job in a new economy). The thing is, the contemporary English major grew out of that historical moment. And in the 1950s, when higher education was born again, English expanded with it. But as everyone points out, that popularity was fleeting.

> I suppose one can look at those statistics and take it as evidence that the humanities can continue to trundle along as it has for the last 30 years or so. I will stick by my argument that the second industrial revolution, which spurred the growth of higher education, and created a foundation for the value of the print literacy that English has historically provided, has been supplanted by new economic engines. We shouldn’t be looking at the 1950s. We should be looking at the 1850s. From 1850 to 1920, the role of rhetoric and literary study in American universities was completed transformed because of the economic effects of the industrial revolution. Might the same be said of the shift from 1950-2020?

Reid’s basic assertion is that observers are quibbling over where to paint the playing field lines when we should be looking at the construction of the stadium. (The sports metaphor surprises me as much as anyone else reading this.) The fact is that there is a much larger transformation taking place in education, especially higher education, and we need to be thinking about it not only tactically but also strategically.

My own thoughts have mostly focused on tactics: let’s engage the current developments in various professions that highlight the role of information technologies to make sure not just our majors but students in general can glimpse, and possibly create/develop/maintain/revise, the connections between the codes and structures they encounter and the kinds of codes and structures that have long been the purview of the humanities in general and literary studies in particular.

I want to state that again: it’s not just about majors but about humanists making a valuable contribution to education in general. This might seem short-sighted in the face of myopic administrators who can’t see past counting heads, but I think we should keep our eyes on the bigger prize and on the larger mission: being a part of a collaborative that gives students the ideas, facts, concepts, and methods they need to create a place for themselves in the world, and in doing so, makes the world a more interesting, free, and safe place for everyone.

[Alex Reid]:

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