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Sunday, January 03, 2010

The decline of the liberal arts

A college president explains why the English Department and other liberal arts institutions are on the way out:
Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):

English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent

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.
His thesis makes sense: throw out the canon and what do you have except heavily biased opinion? I never recommend an English major for those interested in pursuing any form of literary career; English majors were already quite clearly useless when I was in college two decades ago. It is a pity to see fewer history majors, as knowing what has happened in the past is one of the best guides to recognizing what is happening in the present. As for the "business" majors, I've yet to meet one who knew the first thing about business after obtaining such a degree; you'd be much better off to spend four years actually working in a business, or better yet, starting one of your own.

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