Is the English major disappearing?


“What are you going to do with an English major?”

My favorite English professor had the best answer to this. “What are you going to do with ANY major?” he’d grump, albeit with his famous twinkle in his eye.

He was a man of great discernment and humor. He was also right. Speaking personally, you can do anything you want with an English major. I’ve reinvented my career several times while still using what I learned in college.

Yet in The Decline and Fall of the English Major from, not doing what you want seems more than a mere possibility.  A new report shows that students are veering away from a major that supposedly won’t pay the bills, and not just because of parental pressure either; the humanities themselves “often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter.”

And it’s a shame. Even if you have no intention of being a writer—which is just one aspect the English major can take–learning how to articulate yourself in print, express your thoughts clearly, and comprehend what you read are still abilities surely (or sorely) valuable today. You don’t have to be an English major to learn these skills, either.

How has your major helped with your career or life in general? If you’re still in school, did you pick something other than what you wanted because you were worried about making a living?

Note: I can’t see that NYT’s headline title without thinking of this (versus the obvious).

2 thoughts on “Is the English major disappearing?

  1. In many ways writing has become less important in this world. Blame technology. In bygone eras writing was the only means in which to preserve information save oral tradition. It was also the only means to reliably transmit information over distance.

    Today there are alternatives. Aural mediums such as radio or podcasts place greater emphasis on verbal skills. Likewise, Youtube places greater emphasis on performance and presentation skills. These are all valid forms of communication. They are also in their infancy. One can argue that some of these mediums are too transitory to replace writing (such as radio) and in most cases I would agree, but in other cases they are replacing writing effectively (podcast vs blogs).

    More important though has been the technological advances which allow for near instantaneous communication. This has reduced the need for well-organized, thoughtful, and concise writing skills. They simply aren’t needed anymore for day to day communication by the majority of people. Yes, many people have jobs that require strong writing skills, but many more have jobs that don’t. Many jobs now require strong inter-personal skills and speaking skills over writing skills.

    Another issue is that the pool of academic disciplines to choose from has grown immensely. There are so many choices for majors now that the old standards have become diluted by comparison. Jobs have become more specialized now and with that specialization comes the requirement for more narrow study, which lessens the allure for some of the the broader majors

    I don’t see this as a decline in society or intelligence, but rather a natural progression caused by technology and an ever shrinking world.


    • Excellent comment.

      It’s a fascinating topic and I find myself wanting to veer off into so many aspects, so I will now attempt to keep to just one (or two, or three…).

      By chance, I came across this grammar and usage article yesterday:

      “Certain misspellings arise from mishearing: Those who have always heard melted sugar called carmel will spell it that way, rather than the correct—and far more delectable—caramel.”

      Conversely, if you’ve never heard “Worchestershire” or “Worcester” spoken out loud, you might not pronounce it “Wooster,” because you just don’t know that’s what people do.

      I think we still need it all: Written and spoken words, words that are “seen”, words that are illustrated, if only because people learn in different ways, and pronunciation doesn’t always match the spelling.

      Should we make it all match? I don’t know. I have to step out of myself to look at it objectively, and even then I’m not sure how well I do, because I can’t remember when I haven’t loved words, books, and writing. I’d like to think writing and writing skills will always be important and not become highly specialized. I wonder if the same things are happening in other disciplines that aren’t my natural bent.

      I’m just not entirely sure if it’s a natural progression to move away from writing skills or mostly laziness, which my dad always called the mother of invention. Text-speak may be easier on the thumbs, but personally, the sight of it makes me wince. Others would disagree, and denounce those of us who really would like to see the correct “your” and words spelled out long-hand.

      Perhaps we’ll always have regional, cultural, and other differences in our languages, yet I wonder if also having one standard would be beneficial so everyone could understand and not fuss. But then there’d be all the arguing over which standard to have!

      Thanks again for such an insightful comment.


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