According to creative writing professor Verlyn Klinkenborg, who raised the headline’s question in his recent New York Times piece “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” the answer is a resounding yes. While today’s students can reword and metastasize ideas and themes in jargon-heavy but ultimately meaningless paragraphs, Klinkenborg believes they’ve lost the ability to simply write what they mean, and to dos so clearly, succinctly, and with emotion. “Each semester I hope, and fear,” Klinkenborg writes, “that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.”
This statement is of course a sweeping generalization, but the article is worth reading on. Klinkenborg brings up the important points that humanities degrees are declining and that the English major as a whole is undervalued. “The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times,” he writes, and he’s absolutely right. In an economy like this where college graduates are having difficulties landing jobs upon graduation, students are feeling the pressure to pursue a STEM major over a humanities major in the hopes of securing employment.
Klinkenborg brings up the latest report on the state of humanities majors by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was brought to Congress to show how humanities are suffering in the United States. In the past 40 years, the number of humanities degrees awarded has halved, comprising only seven percent of all degrees across the country. Klinkenborg isn’t the only writer to bring up the topic in the media this week — Columnist Quentin Fottrell cited the report in his article “Is the Internet Killing English?,” as did Scientific American’s John Horgan in his piece “Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Engineering Freshman.”
English majors seem to have an especially difficult time, Klinkenborg writes, as many dismiss the value of a degree in — what, exactly? Reading stories and talking about them? This seems to be the general attitude toward English majors and humanities majors as a whole in our tech-saturated society, when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to potential to apply one’s studies to all aspects of the real world — any job in any field, as all jobs demand writing and critical thinking skills — the English major is second to none. “Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career,” Klinkenborg writes, “and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.”
Again, while I disagree with Klinkenborg’s opening statement that most students today don’t know how to write (Please! Every generation bemoans the supposed flaws of the generation succeeding them), I do agree with his impassioned plea to our society to respect the humanities. Learning to think critically and express oneself clearly and effectively through writing are among the most important skills humanities majors come away with, and anyone who has held a job in the “real world” know the value and scarcity of these skills in the workplace. Klinkenborg concludes with the following thought:
Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.
No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.
Readers, do you agree that the humanities are undervalued in our society, or does the importance of STEM subjects supersede them? Sound off in the comments below, or tweet them to @Technapex or @ce_doyle.