The Decline and Fall of the English Major

I’m nearly through my week of PTO 🙂 so once again this is a pre-post.

Every so often, there is an article about higher ed that really sticks in my mind. Perhaps because I was an English major myself, I was particularly drawn to an opinion column in The New York Times that ran many moons ago, called “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” I hope you will give it a read.

As an academic adviser to first-year students and sophomores, I am a witness to the struggle some of our students have as they choose a major.  For some of our students, they legitimately aren’t sure of their strengths and best areas. For other students, they know what they love, but dare not speak its name for fear of the reaction they will get.

These students worry an extraordinary amount that if they choose X as a major [X nearly always being in the humanities], what will their parents/loved ones think?  The students are afraid their families might be angry, might feel they are throwing their tuition money away, or that their student will never get a job.

Sometimes the students also fear what their friends will think of them being an X major, will they ever make a “really good” salary, or will their friends who major in [whatever they think is more bankable] far outearn them and leave the humanities graduate in the dust of a lesser social circle.

I always try to reassure my advisees who are nervous about their major that they will fare best in a major they love and for which they have a strong aptitude. When students major in what they love, typically they make better grades, are more invested, and get more out of it. I would also argue that the cumulative GPA of an English major who is passionate about their major will nearly always be better than the GPA of someone who loved English but majored in X just because they felt they had to.

The New York Times editorial said this:  “Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.”

Real life example: before I worked at Wake Forest, I worked at a management training program for a big bank. We used to say that the major didn’t matter – we could train a new hire to do banking or operations or retail – but we could not train them to think, or write, or have great analytical skills, or be a good communicator. They had to come to the workforce already in possession of those skills. A Wake Forest education – in literally every major – prepares students so they have those skills.

My personal belief – and it has proven itself to be true in my life as well as the lives of my English major friends – is that you can do anything with an English major. Not only do most of us turn out to have jobs and lives that are rich in friends and experiences, there is the richness of the life of the mind.  As the author of this editorial says: “What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”

This is not my plea for all Wake students to be English majors, much as I love the department. It’s a plea to allow your students to find their academic passion and to encourage them in that passion, no matter the major. It’s one of the very greatest gifts you can give.


— by Betsy Chapman, Ph.D. (’92, MA ’94)