Did you realize that in the last generation, there has been a startling drop-off -- a near-collapse, actually -- in the number of college humanities majors? Prof. William Chace, writing in The American Scholar, takes on the problem from the English Department:
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
Chace tells a long, fascinating and depressing story of how broader social and economic changes have marginalized the humanities in colleges. But he focuses his frustration on how English departments have done so much harm to themselves, by turning the study of the beauty and the wisdom of literature and language into a bloodless, clinical dissection of this or that Theory. Chace, who is a veteran professor of literature, says there is no center or coherence to teaching English literature nowadays, and therefore a dissipated sense that its study is important. The withering and decay of the profession can no longer be hidden, he writes:
Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves--the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or "acting assistant professors." These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.'s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn't here anymore; our technology is obsolete.
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