The Indispensability of the English Major

4 min read

| By Gale Staff |

A recent article published in The New Yorker remarks on the startling decline of humanities majors. Aspiring book lovers, philosophers, and writers are instead enrolling in coursework for business or computer science. In the past decade, Ohio State’s number of humanities graduates declined by nearly half. Most major universities, whether large research campuses or small liberal arts schools, report similar figures.

Facing the Reality of Student Debt

As the article by The New Yorker points out—when faced with the burden of student loans, it’s little wonder why more students are seeking higher-income career paths. In fact, the average American college student will owe almost $30,000 by the time he or she graduates. Undoubtedly, the inflated cost of higher education is spurring college students to consider more financially secure professions. It makes sense on paper, but will this logic make us better as a society? While many jobs that result from an English major won’t necessarily pay six figures, these positions are nonetheless important and contribute greatly to community well-being and cultural identity.

Decreasing Support for Soft-Skill Majors

A humanities class was once an educational requirement for most institutions, no matter a student’s major. As the graduation rates diminish for humanities majors and blossom for business, pre-med, and engineering, schools are evaluating the common core. The University of Alabama considered removing required credits for writing, history, and literature. A recent study from Inside Higher Ed demonstrates that most university provosts believe that a well-rounded undergraduate education should include some liberal arts coursework, yet politicians and administrative leadership prioritize STEM and technical education. Since the country’s economic downturn from 2007 to 2009, there simply isn’t enough funding to go around, forcing some institutions to make cuts.

Advocating for Humanities Programs

English majors understand why Ulysses is a masterpiece; they can reference Brideshead Revisited and likely struggled through Waiting for Godot. But not everyone understands the vital role that the study of humanities plays in the American ethos. Yes, we need our doctors and our CEOs, but we need our passionate teachers, beloved librarians, and inspiring writers as well. English majors like Toni Morrison, Stephen Spielberg, and Paul Simon made significant contributions to our modern society. Who, or where, would we be without them?

Even in the age of ChatGPT and other digital resources, experts argue that graduates of any program must be able to communicate their ideas in writing. Humanities courses teach multi-dimensional soft skills essential to an individual’s career success, yet these aptitudes can be difficult to quantify. Not only do humanities courses improve a student’s writing, but advocates argue that these topics improve one’s critical thinking, capacity for empathy, appreciation for other cultures, and innovation.

A piece from The City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center responds to The New Yorker article, calling it “exaggerated.” The desire to learn the humanities is hardly the problem; rather, the issue is the shortsighted belief that more investment in STEM will lead to more grant opportunities and overall wealthier alumni whose donations help with a university’s bottom line. Divesting from the humanities is a business-oriented strategy, which reflects the shift in higher education’s values from education to profit.

Re-Inventing the Humanities Major

One professor argues that the modern world relies on English majors to help combat disinformation and improve people’s well-being. Humanities majors are trained to think critically and to appreciate the world around us. They are storytellers and historians; they integrate art and creativity into the day-to-day. They are empathetic and innovative and add color to the gray.

It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the value of literature, art, music, or foreign languages, and because of this ambiguity, the people who master and teach these subjects are often underfunded. But consider for a moment if our culture invested more heavily in the humanities. Perhaps, with more emphasis on language, art, and culture, society would become less divisive.

CUNY faculty member Nathalie Etoke states, “A society that devalues humanities devalues the human.” If you have the means, consider donating to your alma mater’s humanities department. Career center staff can develop real-world opportunities for humanities majors. Faculty members can invite professionals to speak about careers in the humanities field, and university leaders can consider ways to re-invent humanities courses.

Looking to learn more about schools that have implemented successful strategies for improving enrollment in the humanities? Read this article from Axios!

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