When I entered graduate school in English in the mid-1980s, I didn’t understand the importance of undergraduate enrollments in the field. I was so caught up in scholarship and research and theory that the junior and senior classrooms didn’t much count. The freshman and sophomore classes were even more remote. They registered to me only when I had to teach a survey course and my freshman composition course, assignments valuable only so far as they supported my career. I had a dissertation to write and books of High Theory to read. Helping undergrads with grammar and explaining where a Shakespearean sonnet diverged from a Petrarchan sonnet was an interruption.
In my second year at Emory University, though, I became the Director of Undergraduate Studies. My duties included staffing freshman comp courses and discussion sections in sophomore survey courses and evaluating the instructors. I did that for six years and realized that those courses are the foundation of everything that goes on at the higher levels from upper-division courses in the major to readings courses and seminars in Ph.D. programs to the books professors wrote. If a department didn’t take introductory teaching seriously, corruption would set in everywhere else.
And there was something else. If basic courses didn’t create a steady stream of sophomores into the major, a department would suffer. English didn’t bring in Federal research dollars; it didn’t often get foundation grants or alumni donations. Its material support came from the dean’s office, and the dean needed proof of productivity. The best evidence for that was lots of courses with full enrollment. A department with courses half-full told the dean to pull back. Low student interest meant fewer professors were needed. If freshman and sophomore experiences didn’t inspire very many kids to stick around, the department was in trouble.
The crucial pipeline role struck many undergraduate directors across the country, starting about a dozen years ago when the number of students majoring in English began to slide. A few of us noticed signs of decline much earlier, when the relative portion of students declaring an English major fell significantly, a drop disguised by the fact that while absolute numbers of majors didn’t change, the overall undergraduate population swelled quite a bit. Why didn’t English grow correspondingly?
It was clear that something was wrong when, for example, the number of total graduates jumped by 76,000 from 2006-07 to 2008-09, but the number of English graduates climbed only 340.
Let’s review the numbers, taking data from the latest version of the Digest of Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_322.10.asp).
The high point for English came in 1970-71 when the field tallied 63,914 bachelor’s degrees out of 839,730 degrees in any field awarded nationally. That amounted to a 7.6 percent share of the whole, more than one in 13 students majoring in English.
English majors outnumbered engineering/engineering technology (50K), biology/biomedical sciences (36K), psychology (38K), mathematics (25K), and visual/performing arts (30K). Only the professional fields of education (176K) and business (115K) exceeded English. That tells you how high English once stood in post-secondary American education.
English fell to 41,000 five years later, and 32,000 five years after that, but recovered through the 1980s and stuck at 50-55,000 students through the 90s and 00s and 2013. The stability, though, was misleading. From 1990 to 2013, the overall baccalaureate population leaped from 1,094,538 to 1,870,150, a 70 percent increase. If English grew proportionately, it should have reached 80-85,000 majors, not remained stuck in the low 50s.
Moreover, after 2013, things got much worse. While the overall number of graduates continued to rise, English began a steep descent. From 2013-14 to 2014-15, the number of graduates fell by nearly 5,000. In the following year, it lost another 3,000 (while the number of four-year students rose 25,000). The following year, the last one in the Digest, English lost another 1,500 students (while the overall number of undergrads rose 35,000).
Compare that performance to “Communications, journalism, and related programs.” In 1971, the portion was tiny, only 10,000 of the more than 800,000 kids in four-year institutions. In 2006-07, it had skyrocketed to 74,800, and the 2008 recession did[n’t hurt it one bit. In 2010 it surpassed 83,000, and since then, it has grown steadily every year, reaching 93,778 in 2017.
The same consistent growth has held for computer science, engineering, and biomedical fields. The US Department of Education counts “Health professions” as separate from biology and biomedical, and it has exploded, going from 25,000 in 1970 to 238,000 in 2017. What must it be like to be in one of those high-growth fields? I wouldn’t know.
And what must it be like to be in one of the European languages? In 1970, foreign languages and linguistics grabbed 21,000 bachelor’s degrees. Its share was 0.25 percent of the whole. Twenty years later, while the undergraduate population had swelled, foreign languages and linguistics were still stuck in the low 20,000s. In 2017, the category had dropped to 17,642. That put foreign languages at not even one percent (0.9)! One wonders how those French, Italian, and German professors feel now about joining the march to eliminate Western Civilization from the curriculum.
The numbers are an indictment of the language and literature professors. The arrival of the Millennials into college should have been a windfall in the fields. They shared the progressive politics of the professors, and the professors were willing to adapt their courses to the media/contemporary landscape favored by the kids. But the kids didn’t come. The star professors in charge of the field wrote edgy books and concocted out-there theories; they floated from campus to campus, enjoyed hefty salaries, and cultivated graduate students. But they didn’t often teach freshman and sophomore courses, and when they did, few of them had the charisma to draw the half-interested student into the field. These were theorists, not entrepreneurs. They scorned the professor who geared his thought to first- and second-year students.
Besides, why worry? The collapse happened on their watch, but it didn’t hurt them personally. The discipline is marginal now, and the people who took the helm have not expressed any regrets, but why should they regret something they notice only as a trend far beyond their own actions? They were in control then, and they are in control now. It’s nice to be in charge, even if the enterprise you lead is failing. You still get your paycheck. We will see where things stand in another ten years.