By Colleen Flaherty
Humanities advocates sometimes dispute data about declining numbers of majors in their disciplines: They don’t always reflect double majors, or overall enrollment in courses, or the diversity of majors now available to students (compared with the past). But data on the number of English majors at the University of Maryland–College Park—down some 40 percent in a little more than three years—are pretty hard to dispute. What happened?
Part Everyman tale, as far as English departments go, and part lesson in unintended consequences, Maryland English’s story looks something like this. Between 1996 and 2011, the number of majors actually grew, from 641 to 850 students. Then the university rolled out a new, faculty-backed general education program. Unlike the old general education program, which centered on the liberal arts and required a literature course, the new one offers students much more flexibility in how to fulfill their various requirements. So students who aren’t interested in the liberal arts can much more easily avoid them. Part of the idea was to take some of the burden off departments, such as English, that fulfilled requirements for many students under the old system. Faculty members generally supported the idea.
But then the numbers got funny. In the spring of 2012, the English department lost 88 majors. The following year it lost 79—then 128 more majors 12 months later. Between spring and fall 2014, 66 more majors fell from the rolls. Overall the department lost 363 majors—about 40 percent—and the numbers continue to fall.
Faculty members say the general education program, coupled with anxieties about studying the humanities in a still uncertain job market, have hurt liberal arts major numbers across the board. With less mandated exposure to humanities departments under the new system, fewer students are taking that initial course in which they catch the philosophy or history or English “bug,” faculty members say, and English appears to be one of the hardest-hit disciplines.
“If our spring 2015 numbers follow the pattern of our recent death spiral, we will have lost in four years twice as many majors as we gained in 15,” Kent Cartwright, professor and former English department chairman at Maryland, said earlier this month during a panel at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I describe this situation in order to emphasize our surprising vulnerability, especially that of the literature [concentration].”
Cartwright said in a more recent interview that he thinks what’s happening at Maryland is emblematic of what’s happening in English departments across the country. Curriculum changes have just hastened Maryland’s troubles, he said.
“I don’t want to make it seem like the major is collapsing in some extraordinary fashion, because what’s happening here is fairly typical and has been happening at other universities,” Cartwright said. “But the speed is a little unusual. Local conditions exacerbated the problems.”
William Cohen, professor and current department chairman, said it’s “difficult to know precisely which factors contribute to these declines.” But, he said via email, part of it is “cultural, as reflected in declines among humanities majors nationally. There seems to be a perception (however unfounded) among some students and their families that the employment prospects for humanities majors are not as great as in some other fields.”
Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, said that in the current economic climate, “people are looking at higher education more as a personal good than a social good and therefore don’t fully understand the economic value of the arts and humanities. As a result, people are moving in a careerist direction at the undergraduate level.” Additionally, she said, Maryland is not competitive among peer institutions in its “ability to provide financial aid which would make study in these areas financially feasible for more families.”
Maryland’s data roughly mirror national data for English degrees conferred, minus the precipitous drop-off in the past two years. According to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System compiled by the Modern Language Association, the total number of English undergraduate degrees awarded annually grew from 48,689 in 1996 to 55,518 in 2009. Then numbers began to drop off—albeit not as dramatically as at Maryland—to about 52,800 in 2011 and 52,489 in 2013, the most recent year for which national data are available.
The English major at George Mason University might be more typical. Some 20 years ago, there were about 800 English majors. That number soon dropped to about 600 when the state of Virginia eliminated the English major as a requirement for teaching secondary English. Majors have continued to drop, to 422 this fall. Faculty members there attribute the downward trend to the usual suspects: the fact that double English majors aren’t always counted, cultural doubts about the value of the humanities, a glut of new programs of study, and—primarily—concerns about job prospects upon graduation.
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