Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 67: College Graduates Don’t Know Much About English

The average English major graduates knowing much about racial, ethnic, and sexual politics, but very little about literary history and classic authors, according to a new study of undergraduate English programs by the National Association of Scholars, a higher education reform group in Princeton, New Jersey.

The study, Losing the Big Picture: The Fragmentation of the English Major Since 1964, surveys the evolution of English majors since the 1960s at 25 of America’s most select liberal arts institutions. North Carolina’s Davidson college was among those institutions surveyed. The study finds that the overall literary landscape, once considered fundamental of a college education, has been replaced by a “bewildering hodgepodge of specialized courses, often concerned with sex, popular culture, or the latest political fashion,” according to the study.

NAS identified the following trends between 1964-65 and 1997-98:

* While the total number of English courses almost doubled, the proportion of foundational courses, courses dealing with major authors, periods, and genres, declined, from an average of 58 percent of departmental offerings in 1964 to 35 percent in 1997.
* Survey courses in English literature, compulsory in a majority of departments in 1964-65, were required in only 16 percent of departments by 1997-98.
* In 1964-65 courses on Shakespeare were either required or part of obligatory course cluster in 48 percent of the departments. In 1997-98 theses requirements existed in only 16 percent of all departments.
* The number of English electives increased by 74 percent overall, and at some colleges it doubled or even tripled between 1964 and 1997. Because of this substantial increase in available courses, students took a smaller percentage of a department’s total offerings, which further fragments the curriculum.
* Courses on racial, ethnic, or sexual topics, negligible in 1964-65, were featured in almost every program by 1989-90 and proliferated the next decade. In 1964, “British Greats” comprised 47 percent of all authorized in course descriptions. By 1997, the number shrunk to 28 percent.
* Toni Morrison now ranks sixth among all authors who have ever written in the English language. Zora Neale Hurston ranks ahead of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allen Poe.

“We rely on our leading colleges to produce the next generation of writer, scholars, critics and educated readers, ” said NAS President Stephen Balch in a released statement. “If these gifted young people aren’t encouraged to absorb the richness of the English literary tradition, our culture can’t help but be diminished. While some institutions still take this civilizing mission seriously, most, strangely, think they have better things to do.”

The study follows on the heels of several reports about diminishing requirements for undergraduates and new politicized curricula. The University of Cambridge announced this week that it will consider dropping its course on Shakespeare as a requirement for all undergraduates. “Some leading British Shakespeare scholars are aghast that the university is even discussing the idea,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on June 1. A May 27 New York Times report, “New Activists Are Nurtured by Politicized Curriculums,” highlighted the link between the latest generation of activists and the overtly political courses added to college curriculum in recent years.

“The report seems to confirm what we had offered empirically in our study,” said Glenn Ricketts, public affairs director for NAS. “[Professors] used to deny what they were doing even as they were doing it. Now they are right up front about it.”