End of the English Major? Hardly!

March 8, 2023

Graduate Center scholars say "The New Yorker" story is a clarion call, but the humanities remain relevant.

Old-fashioned typewriter with a paper and wording To be, or not to be
(Credit: Getty Images)

Is the humanities degree going the way of the dodo bird? An article in The New Yorker, “The End of the English Major,” posits as a eulogy for the bustling humanities programs of yesteryear, citing dwindling investment and a generational shift toward science and technology and degrees that can be monetized. Faculty members at the Graduate Center, however, say that while the article is a clarion call, the death of the humanities is exaggerated. The desire and need to study the human past remain strong.

Scholars shared their views on the current state and future of the humanities:

Tanya Agathocleous, Professor of English at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, Interim Co-Executive Officer of the Graduate Center Ph.D. in English Program:

The problem isn’t that people aren’t interested in the humanities; it’s that governments have disinvested in higher education and civil society, leaving universities scrambling for resources and emphasizing STEM because it brings in grant money and investors and creates wealthier alumni (in theory — many businesses say that they recruit English majors for their critical thinking skills). In a world in which people read and write all day on their phones and computers, we need to teach people to read and write well, and that’s what English as a discipline does.

Learn More about the Ph.D. program in English

Talia Schaffer, Professor of English at the Graduate Center and Queens College, Interim Co-Executive Officer of the Graduate Center Ph.D. in English Program:

People are reading and writing more than ever in today’s digital world, so the English major is more crucial than it has ever been. Surrounded as we are by misinformation, conspiracy theories, social media, chatbots, we desperately need what English offers: mastery of texts. English teaches how to decode language, how to produce effective rhetoric, how to recognize genres and representations, and how to imagine oneself into alternative cultural ideas. These are the skills we need to be mentally healthy today. So it is nothing short of tragic that the state has slashed funding for English. The need is there, the students are eager, the faculty are passionate. But public investment in education has been slashed. As Heller’s article makes clear, the impoverishment of English — the crumbling buildings, underpaid faculty, dwindling courses — turns off students who would otherwise be able to do work they love, work of incalculable importance in today’s textual environment.

People are reading and writing more than ever in today’s digital world, so the English major is more crucial than it has ever been. —Talia Schaffer

Nathalie Etoke, Graduate Center Professor of French and Liberal Studies, Director of the Africana Studies Certificate Program:

I remember when, after 2008, foreign languages departments faced declining enrollment. Departments of global languages and cultures were created to house formerly independent units. English departments, with their falling majors, are now in trouble too. Modern and ancient languages and literatures face a widespread assumption that education should be driven by the market. The declining figures spell out a hard truth: Humanities do not offer the tangible rewards advocated by America’s neoliberal culture. Not only that, but their faculty are also sometimes blamed for contributing to our era’s cultural and political polarization. Despite all of this, something needs to be said on behalf of the meaning of literature in society. What happens to a society that no longer wishes to reflect on what it means to be human through literature? How can we think critically, interpret, and understand the human experience if the humanities become irrelevant? A society that devalues humanities devalues the human.

A society that devalues humanities devalues the human. —Nathalie Etoke

Caroline Reitz, Professor of English at the Graduate Center and John Jay College of Criminal Justice:

At John Jay College, where I also teach undergraduates, we have, of course, been talking about English enrollments — but significantly before the New Yorker piece. We might teach reading, but we can also count!

As a criminal justice school, we don’t assume students come wanting to study literature or writing. Indeed, most of them have had pretty negative experiences with their humanities high school classes. But we find that our smaller classes, where students can engage in actual conversations with classmates, take them by pleasant surprise. Our criminal-justice related majors are huge, there aren’t sufficient advisers, and now many of those classes are online. In English, we are trying to be the in-person major, with co-curriculars (school newspaper, creative writing club, poetry slams) that connect students with humans in real time and with mentors who can talk with them about their lives beyond what classes to take next semester. Our assignments, which include a lot of reflective writing and a wide variety of storytelling across time and space, place student experience at the center of the syllabus. This has always been a meaningful aspect of being an English major — stories through which you can understand yourself and others — but it is even more crucial now as we rebuild our communities and goals after COVID.

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Cathy N. Davidson, Graduate Center Distinguished Professor of English, Digital Humanities, and Data Analysis and Visualization; Founding Director of the Futures Initiative; Senior Adviser on Transformation to the CUNY Chancellor:

Whether it’s the 2014 Google study of all the hiring, firing, and promotion or the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) surveys of what employers really want, we know that communication skills, critical and creative thinking skills, and collaboration skills are primary in hiring a new employee. The problem is that most students don’t know this and, in fact, most faculty don’t know how to teach this. Typically, we’re trained in specialized skills and don’t really know how to go up a level, and think about all the soft or “higher order thinking” skills that the humanities does best. During our Spring Career Success Fellows faculty professional development seminars, the CUNY Office of Transformation hopes to change that.

Learn more about the Master's Program in Digital Humanities

Mary McGlynn, Professor of English at the Graduate Center and Baruch College, Acting Deputy Executive Officer for Placement in the Graduate Center Ph.D. in English Program:

My first reaction is one of dismay that the writer is so easily distracted by the well-worn narratives that the problem is somehow the lack of instrumental use for an English major. He talks to multiple scholars who note the coincidence of the decline in funding, the rise in administrative costs, and the explosion of student debt that have changed the on-campus experience in the last 50 years. Alongside these changes, there’s been a culture-wide surge in what we can call discourses of financialization, ways of thinking and talking about all aspects of our lives through a lens that uncritically accepts the primacy of economics. Our language is full of metaphors that have an economic angle — wasting time, spending energy, etc. — but the writer doesn’t get outside of the financialized worldview.

Clearly when people are choosing to spend family money on a student’s education, this is a financial decision, but we enter into a self-reinforcing death spiral when administrations allocate campus resources to the types of degrees that are visibly profit-seeking over those with less direct ties to money. Moreover, in accepting the assumption that the job of a college education is to prepare employees for the workforce, we accept a model in which private corporations offload the work of job training onto outside institutions and oblige students to pay for this training themselves, particularly in an era when state disinvestment is on the increase.

Matthew K. Gold, Graduate Center Professor of English and Digital Humanities, Director of the M.A. in Digital Humanities and M.S. in Data Analysis and Visualization Programs, Director of Graduate Center Digital Initiatives:

The article is troubling, both for the trends it describes and the stories it overlooks. As ever, I'm sorry to see a New York-based elite publication like The New Yorker or The New York Times leave CUNY out of the story. It happens too often, and it is a source of continual frustration given the number of urgent stories CUNY students have to tell. Having said that, I would point out that there are multiple competing and contradictory truths that we need to hold in our minds at the same time: that English departments, as currently configured along national, periodic, thematic, and theoretical lines, are not as relevant or as self-evident to students as they once were (if they ever were); that English departments do teach some of the intellectual, analytical, and communicative skills most valued in many employment sectors; and that the entire game we're playing here, where the number of majors corresponds to budgets, power, and influence, is the predictable result of neoliberal austerity politics that follow state disinvestment in public higher education.  

The humanities teach students to think flexibly rather than directing them along a pre-structured career path. —Matthew K. Gold

A college education should amount to more than glorified job training. But people have to eat, and it's hard for families to spend a lot of money on a college education that doesn't move students towards jobs. The humanities may not offer as direct a route towards careers as other disciplines, but they teach students to think, and to think flexibly and critically, about the world around them. Indeed, one reason we need the humanities is that they ask complex questions outside the narrow envelope of career-based, solution-oriented disciplines. I like to point out in my digital humanities classes that whereas STEM and engineering classes attempt to solve problems, humanities classes delight in ambiguity, in creating and even causing problems. One can design a bridge to cross a river, and one might need engineering skills to do that, but to understand the impact of that bridge on the communities connected by it, or the communities whose homes will be displaced by its creation, or the stories told about the space before the bridge was created, one needs the humanities. The humanities open up the collective and co-created story of space, water, rivets, people, and sky.  

The kinds of skills taught in English classes, and in humanities classes more generally, are extremely well valued on the job market. And as someone who couples humanities-based inquiry with digital methods, I think that the kinds of work we do at the Graduate Center in the humanities — analog and digital — offer so many ways for students to grapple with and intervene in the world. Perhaps English departments, as they have been structured over the past 50 years, need to adapt and change; but just as importantly, we need to have a critical conversation about the world we're living in, and the place of college within it. I believe that the humanities offer the best training for that conversation, and for so many others.  

Learn more about the Center for the Humanities 

Kendra Sullivan, Director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center:

Humanities practices keep people going, they record people’s experiences and dreams, they critically rescript pasts, presents, and futures, and they cultivate opportunities for spontaneous encounter and creativity while sustaining communities. They even seed the possibility of higher-functioning democratic engagement. I know it’s true because I’ve seen it happen!

Our connection to each other through art, culture, and critical thinking is one of our very few unbreakable bonds. —Kendra Sullivan

I’m thinking of my brilliant friend and colleague Zohra Saed (Distinguished Professor at Macaulay Honors College) who was traveling in Turkey during the recent earthquakes. She was there for literary-historical research, for poetry creation, and for the preservation of endangered languages, but the networks she rehearsed as a poet and scholar were instantly activated for mutual aid and emergency response, channeling resources to on-the-ground actors when needed most. Her capacity to pivot from cultural production to disaster relief was grounded in real relationships to people and place, relationships founded on creativity and intellection, and which allowed her to help as an act of solidarity not charity. I'm calling out here the capacity of the humanities to help us respond to crisis in practical ways! We all need the humanities to bolster our spirits, complicate our historical narratives, and help us cultivate critical perspectives on the many unfolding presents we are actively weaving together, for sure, but we also need them to bring us together to experience the joy of creativity so that we are (more) ready to snap into action when it’s time to meet what's just around the bend. Poetry as disaster preparedness? It is a tenuous link, I know, and it threatens to instrumentalize the humanistic practices, which of course have their own inherent worth, but it ends up that our connection to each other through art, culture, and critical thinking is one of our very few unbreakable bonds.

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