Statistics abound that document the recent drop-off in English enrollments and in majors (and thus, not incidentally from my perspective, in job openings for professors). One such statistic may suffice for my purposes here: from 2011–12 to 2020–21, the number of English majors dropped by a third. The decline is such that in February, a New Yorker article declared “The End of the English Major.”
Other humanities departments are also languishing. STEM fields are thriving, not because they are inherently appealing to a growing number of students but because undergrads believe those fields of study lead to more lucrative jobs and careers. I don’t fault young people for their choices in a daunting economic environment, but not all college students have the aptitude required by, or favored in, STEM fields. Many other students are drawn to careers in finance and so select majors favored by hirers in that field: business and finance majors where they are available, economics at liberal arts institutions. I find this lamentable. Indeed, I have recently decided to divert my annual contributions from my alma mater, Dartmouth College, where a high proportion of graduates go into finance, to colleges that encourage careers in teaching, public service and so on.
I used to counsel my students at Hofstra University that choosing to major in business might be shortsighted; one could do anything, or almost anything, with a liberal arts major. I liked to point out that one of the most well-known of my classmates (and probably the richest), former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson, was an English major. I continue to champion my own major, English, in part because it teaches students how to interpret texts in their cultural contexts. But I am alarmed and saddened by the decline in undergraduate interest.
I wonder, though, whether it can’t be reversed by what might seem a radical gesture: rebrand and reimagine English as Global English Studies.
As I see it, the English major has an advantage over its competition in languages and literatures that has not been exploited: English is a—indeed the only—truly global language. Admittedly, Chinese and even Spanish have more first-language speakers, but Chinese and Spanish speakers are concentrated geographically. English has the largest number of total speakers; more important, they are spread widely around the globe. Unlike Chinese, then, English is a veritable lingua franca, a status that has only been reinforced by the advent of the internet.
And therein, in my view, lies the key to the salvation of the field: promote and exploit the unique globality of the English language. Rethink, refocus and expand the curriculum as necessary to explain and explore the implications of this fact. To use the contemporary colloquialism: own it.
My thesis is that the best way to attract majors and expand enrollments is to remind students of their advantage as native speakers, apprise them of how English came to be a global language and alert them to its special value in a global economy. Help them think of the major as preparation for thoughtful, reflective global citizenship, and not just literary analysis. A major that gives students a multidimensional knowledge of the rise of English should be a valuable credential in an international job market.
Much of the current English curriculum—the courses offered—might remain the same, but rethinking the English major as Global English Studies would involve more than renaming the field and describing it differently in brochure copy, though that’s an important start. It would require rethinking some of the curriculum and inventing new courses.
In particular, Global English Studies would pay more attention to the language itself—its history, its development and its distinctive features as a language. What used to be a standard English course, the History of the English Language, seems to have disappeared from the contemporary English curriculum. Once considered a helpful, or even necessary, adjunct to the study of early English literature, it has declined along with interest in those periods. (Do English majors even read Beowulf anymore?) In Global English Studies, the role of that course would be to explore not just the evolution of the language from Anglo-Saxon through Middle English to modern English (the great vowel shift!) but how it came to be a global language: namely, through British (and subsequently American) imperialism.
This course provides one link between language as such and broader geopolitical events and cultural history. Postcolonial or world Anglophone literatures are already studied; Global English Studies puts them in their wider context and might make them more central than the traditional canon. Renaming the discipline “Global English Studies” signals to students that the major is expansive in its scope and contemporary in its significance: outward and forward-looking, not the retrospective study of the traditional canon.
Global English Studies should be comprehensive in its approach to the language, investigating African American Vernacular English, Spanglish, Chinglish and any other variants. It might do some comparative linguistics: Are there any ways in which English is qualified to be an international language? Do its grammar and syntax make it more accessible to nonnative speakers? It certainly has benefited from its global spread, incorporating words from many other linguistic sources. (Talk about cultural appropriation.) English has readily adapted words for things that the British encountered as the empire expanded. Why invent an English word for the New World nuisance, the mosquito? The variety of its linguistic sources is also the reason many English words are so hard to spell and pronounce.
I’ve always stressed textuality—the words on the page—in my teaching of literature. But I fear I have not fully impressed on my students the ways in which English is distinctive. (As a lover of crosswords, I note that one difficult aspect of English is that many words function as many different parts of speech. A one-word clue may be far less helpful than it seems.) Global English Studies puts English in a context in which its history, evolution, complexity and spread should prompt new courses. The vast and varied lexicon of English is certainly advantageous for writers, and attention to it should enrich the teaching of writing—composition and creative writing—as well as literature.
English should attend, too, to the implications of the globality of the language for the literary marketplace. Native English speakers have an enormous unearned advantage both as writers and as readers of literature. Other languages have literary prizes, but English has the most prestigious ones. That is both a cause and a result of the fact that Anglophone literature dominates the international literary marketplace. Literary translation may be a two-way street, but the traffic favors English. That is, far more Anglophone texts get translated into “foreign” languages than vice versa, and the language most sought as a target language for non-Anglophone texts is English.
A parallel to the history of the language would be a course (or courses) in the history of the book, including postprint media. Here of course English might incur some turf battles. But rather than insist on boundaries, I would suggest departments accept more cross-departmental electives. The English major should always have been attractive to those going into journalism and media. But encouraging the study of nonprint media would make the major all the more valuable.
Finally, the so-called Whorfian hypothesis—the notion that languages influence how their speakers perceive reality—bears mention here. However strongly one believes in linguistic relativity, it is worth considering whether, how and how much the language itself filters reality or frames a worldview. This is especially important today. Consider this, from an essay in Compact about Western Europe’s subordination to Washington.
“This point may seem like an obvious one, but it isn’t obvious why America should still wield massive influence over Western Europe almost eighty years after the end of the Second World War … One key factor is the U.S. establishment’s influence over European public discourse, which easily outweighs that of any European country … English remains the lingua franca in Europe, and all mainstream English-language media outlets—which are mostly based either in the United States or Great Britain—have a strong Atlanticist bias.”
What I’m suggesting here is that students be encouraged to look at (rather than, or as well as, through) the language, just as we encourage them to look at, rather than through, literary texts. A significant aspect of this endeavor would be to promote close examination of what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson dubbed “metaphors we live by”—that is, the everyday tropes we think with and act on.
I have admittedly made a utilitarian argument, in response to the precipitous and unfortunate decline of the English major. But I believe that helping students appreciate the legacy of English in a global context is an inherently valuable and intellectually sound mission for the major, not to mention for the academy as a whole. It might not reverse the decline in undergraduate majors, but it should revitalize the discipline. Indeed, I like to think of this approach as an homage to, and update of, George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” which explored the association between political language and oppressive ideology. A program that examined the relation between geopolitics and the English language might serve not just to foster English enrollments but, more importantly, to encourage critical thinking about the role of the language in our global predicament.