In Chris Miller’s superb Chip War, there is an intriguing anecdote about the young, talented Morris Chang. Chang enrolled at Harvard to study Shakespeare, but during his freshman year, he began to have doubts about his job prospects. So in his sophomore year he transferred to MIT, where he majored in engineering. After MIT he went on to earn a PhD in physics from Stanford, giving him the trifecta of academic credentials. After many years at Texas Instruments, he founded TSMC, the semiconductor manufacturing company that lies at the heart of Xi Jinping’s craving to “reunite” Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.
One wonders what would have happened had Chang stayed with Shakespeare instead of creating one of the ten most valuable companies in the world. Would he have transformed Shakespeare studies and, by extension, the humanities in general? Or would we now be listening to our instructors while inditing notes, as the Romans did, on a wax tablet?
The Chang anecdote comes to mind as I have been pondering a recent essay in The New Yorker, “The End of the English Major” by Nathan Heller. Because this is The New Yorker, we must be alert to the irony in the title, the mock melodrama intended to tweak the many English majors among its readership. Heller’s argument is based on the startling fact that the enrollment of English majors, and in the humanities more broadly, has dropped precipitously, with some institutions reporting declines of as much as 40%. Language departments are being consolidated and new staff positions are hard to find. One can imagine competing choruses (dressed in togas, reciting in precise meter): That is absolutely terrible!, or It’s about time! Unsaid is the possibility that with the decline of the English major, The New Yorker will gradually disappear as well. The English major is not simply an entry in the registrar’s log but a central component of an ecosystem that includes writers, readers, playhouses, the genre of costume drama, and many text-based publications, from The Atlantic to the staff of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and reaches into the intimate education of the people behind The New York Times, NPR, and PBS. Banish the plump English major and banish all the world! (Yes, that is a paraphrase of Shakespeare.)
Heller has interviewed a number of people, principally from Harvard and ASU, presumably representing two poles of higher education in the U.S., and he carefully injects a hint of The New Yorker’s trademark technodystopianism, but overall he seems to me to have captured a reasonable picture about how the humanities are being thought of on campus. What kind of job can I get if I study John Donne, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf? Isn’t the study of literature at bottom really a hobby? What we need are majors that produce tangible outcomes, and that means STEM, STEM, STEM! I offer these cheering thoughts to the many PhD’s in the life sciences who shuffle from one adjunct teaching position to another or are stuck as career postdocs.
The other side of this is, what happens when students don’t study literature? Who will protect us from bad spelling, dangling modifiers, or, God forbid, the use of “privilege” as a verb? One professor notes that her students seem to have trouble grasping a basic understanding of the sentences of some works and wonders if literacy itself is at risk. Her specific example is The Scarlet Letter, which I took personally, as Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, especially for his short stories. But there is a place to consider whether the syntax of Hawthorne or, say, John Milton’s Paradise Lost prepares a young person for PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, and Zoom conferences. Even so, I wonder if we should not be picking on just English majors here. I have myself been bewildered by some writing in the social sciences, including occasional guest posts on The Scholarly Kitchen, where the level of abstraction is so great that I can’t for the life of me figure out what the hell is going on. Maybe we need to do some more thinking before we shrink humanities departments further and stuff them in a closet.
Allow me to confess that I was myself an English major and find it troubling to be regarded as a citizen of a lost civilization. Having said that, I bear no grudge against the hundreds of people with technical educations who worked for me over the years. And, as far as I know, they weren’t overly miffed when I would occasionally remark at a marketing presentation, “Wow! That was a nicely turned phrase!” I can’t say that being an English major made me more or less employable, more or less effective at my job, or a better person. There is no direct line from what one studies as an undergraduate and one’s ultimate profession. But Robert Burns said it better: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” The line is addressed to a mouse.
Into this backyard skirmish of the Culture Wars steps Ross Douthat of The New York Times to proclaim that “I’m What’s Wrong with the Humanities,” and he inadvertently makes his case. Douthat’s argument is that in a world of blog posts, newsletters, and social media, he no longer can wade through a work by the Brontes or Jane Austen. This is a head-shaker: Does he really believe that the 19th-century English novel is a metonym for literary study? It takes little imagination to see that literary study has much to tell us about new forms of media, from tweets to the Metaverse. Douthat has forgotten that in 2016 the time was out of joint (in Hamlet’s phrase) and we saw not only the election of Donald Trump but also the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan, no Anthony Trollope wannabe he. (More incontrovertible proof that a rift opened in the universe in 2016 can be found in the fact that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.) Perhaps the study of literature has become more loosely defined, more diverse, always evolving. Perhaps college is not about job training after all.
For the time being, however, this argument — my argument — is losing, and those of us laboring in scholarly publishing have to be prepared for this. Although I believe that things will swing back when enough chemists find themselves reporting to philosophy majors, we have to think about the ecosystem in which we work. A 40% drop in humanities majors, if it persists for even a short while, will ripple through the field: fewer graduate students, fewer professorships, and ultimately fewer publications. I am thinking particularly about the university press world, which I acknowledge is my favorite sector of all in scholarly publishing. Some years ago I worked on a project that determined that 28% of university books were in history and 16% were in literary criticism. I don’t know what the numbers are today, but even if they have declined by half, the university press world is highly dependent on those disciplines.
Predicting retrenchment in university press publishing is something of an annual affair, but right now we may be facing a significant resizing of the infrastructure of academic book publishing. And it must be said: Open access can’t help here, as the problem is not access but diminishing research, publication, and readership. I do suspect that many provosts will be thrilled to be able to rid themselves of their university presses. But if the pendulum does swing back and some knowledge of Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop is viewed as the mark of an educated person, we may not have enough ships to carry us to Troy.