The sky darkened over the tall pillars of the university. Storm clouds rolled over the fresh green leaves of spring maple trees; a quiet hum of electricity filled the spaces between abandoned buildings. Wind-whistled pieces of paper fluttered through the mock streets. A siren sounded in the distance, enforcing lonely echoes throughout the hallways and floors of emptied classrooms and corridors. The spine cracked, an overlooked book lay open on a desk, pages yellowing from the sneaking sun flitting through the shuttered shades. Across the vacant quadrangle, behind an ancient pile of bricks, a shoe lay tumbled on its side, surrounded by a few remaining books; it sat in a pile of rubble that stood its place like a gap in a suddenly toothless mouth. A small flame burned amongst the embers of the library. The ashes began to sizzle as the rains broke loose, but nobody was there to hear. The doors of the rooms stayed locked in the town, and behind them sat the milky eyes of the workers who analyzed the data pulled from VR, and with the help from AI, were able to market it to other countries who have not yet made the change. An Orwellian eyeball roamed listlessly over the sky, peaking into the rooms of houses, and the minds of the people. The previous generations tried to stop this by warning of the book, 1984, and others, but the kids laughed that off as “silly stories,” and returned to the blinking, harking call of their telephone screen. Soon everyone either got worn down or died off, and nobody remembered the “silly stories,” and nobody remembered discussing literature, and nobody remembered autonomy, or love, or strangeness. So the change happened very quietly, and very suddenly, and there was very little resistance because if you did resist, your new attention span would make it very hard for you to remember why. And the professors sat, very old and very tired, by their mechanical fires, and thought about the beginning of the end, a brief headline flickering across primordial internet platforms and magazines; the end of the English major.
This February, the publication of Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article “The End of the English Major” caught the general humanities-lover in a grip of terror like a dog backed into a corner. This conversation had been happening before Heller’s unveiling, but with its abrupt broadcast we are now forced to pace and snarl, teeth over gum, to protect its existence. We may not like what Heller is saying, but he is reporting on a trend that has developed quickly within the last decade. An article from MIT shows that from 2012-2020 the annual number of humanities bachelor’s fell 16 percent, history bachelor’s degrees fell by a whopping 1/3, while STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors increased about 56 percent in the same period. The Hechinger Report finds that humanities have fallen to under 200,000 degrees in 2020, and that makes humanities degrees less than 10% of all the bachelor’s degree graduates in that year (National Center for Education Statistics). Has the dreaming, Blakeian poet of sunny campus afternoons left us for a reliable post amongst the steel, cold walls of the laboratory? If the English major is dead nationally, what does that mean for the future of the humanities as studied in Rhode Island; and in a larger dilemma, what does this change mean for the future of humans?
Carolyn Betensky is a professor of world and Victorian literature at University of Rhode Island and has been teaching for more than two decades. She has watched the shuffling of generations reflect our world’s drastic changes; all with a perspective that reflects her area of study. “It’s harder for people to read enormous novels, our attention spans have changed. Back in the 19th century, the novels were quite long, they were seen as pleasure, as fun. Now I have to assign less reading than I used to, even at a graduate level.” Even though the attention spans of her students are weakening, she notes that there is no decline of interest in the subject. Betensky attempts to engage her students with a “text that is not moving” by finding the theme that threads through from over a century ago and into a contemporary issue, she keeps breathing life into literature. Betensky is giving her students an important tool to understand the present through the past; something that will be lost if the study of literature is abandoned. Jennifer Jones, a professor of Romantic era literature and culture at URI, speaks to Betensky quite frequently about this issue, and refers to a lack of willingness to associate oneself in historical context as “presentism.”
“If you take it for granted that it simply is what it simply is,” says Jones. “Your ability for self-awareness is nonexistent. The past has to be animate, complex, and constantly oscillating between something that is foreign and unfamiliar and something with which someone can recognize similarities.” Jones has also noticed a distinct change in her students, in correspondence with the technological paradigm that has shaped the past decade. When she began as a teaching assistant in the early 2000s, novels were the favored medium by students, because everyone grew up reading them. Now, students want to read poetry because their attention spans are shorter, and they are no longer raised on novels. She said this was the first real shift she noticed, parallel to the iPhone revolution of 2012, 2013, and 2014. The second shift was from 2015-2018, the loss of catholicism and the resistance of the thematic (the inclusion of the “trigger warning”). The third shift, the one we’re situated in now, she heartachingly refers to as “having no capacity to be unplugged anymore.”
As an English Lit major at URI and a student of Betensky’s, Kyle Gunning feels like he has trouble relating to many of his classmates. If you are the exceedingly rare creature that prefers the scratch of pen on paper, and the look of a book open on your desk, it can feel like you are waging a war against the nefarious screens that control the attention of most students swiveling around the room. “The more devoted you are to the humanities the more isolated you are, the less you will be able to communicate that love for the humanities to people that aren’t so familiar.” Gunning and I sit at a corner table in a student-funded coffee shop at the university, and upon his mountain of books sits a flip-phone. I have heard Gunning recite poetry before, and I have seen him wander out of the library with armfuls of books countless times. When I ask him what poet he is reading right now, he eagerly thrusts a book at me “I really like poetry; I love talking to people about poetry. I think on a deeper, philosophical level, the humanities are worth pursuing because you can understand yourself in relation to multiple points in history at once. Knowing yourself beyond the individual self.” Gunning’s devotion to his study is a testament that the passion for the humanities is still there, but its manifestation is being eked out of several of his contemporaries, “To have a longer attention span is a political statement. You have to engage in activities which are so countercultural that it’s almost like speaking a foreign language.” The art of reading a book, once a national pastime, seen now as an act of protest. Where are the students raging against the machine? Where are all the Kyle Gunnings?
The Gunnings, upon entering the collegiate universe, may be hiding underneath the protective gauze of STEM majors. It is not that love for literature is declining, it is that the moral of college itself is changing. The ideology behind going to university is now consumed by the capitalistic dogma that surrounds our production culture; what can I do with the degree, and how will it get me money? Charles Kell, published poet, and professor of English at Community College of Rhode Island sees this in his students. “There’s this push of external forces. ‘Better have something lined up when you’re done.’ It creates a sociological effect: When I’m talking to students there’s a lean towards jobs with security.” Kell speaks with me over the computer, surrounded by the textured walls of his library. He mentioned at his recent book release party that his library looks like a wild mess from the outside, but he knows the placement of each book. For someone who makes a life out of the study of literature, their library is like a mirror to their soul. “I ask students if they’re choosing a degree that makes them happy. They think of it like ‘I gotta get through, a race to the grave.’ When I went to college in the early 2000s, I wanted to go and just read.” Studying English and the humanities is not a monetizable endeavor, but with the egregious price of college tuition it appears outrageous to graduate without a quantifiable “skill set.” Jones remarks on society and its treatment of the humanities, “The number one reason why humanist activities are in decline is because everyone is suspicious it is a waste of time.”
Timothy Bewes, Professor of English and interim chair of English at Brown University, feels that studying the history of human thought and expression is something we do with “openness, curiosity, and humility. We put into question the very notion of self. The essential argument of humanities is an unregulated and instrumental exploration about what it means to be a human.” Embarking on the study of literature as a method of inquiry not only informs us of the past but introduces us to ourselves. It is a raw, scathing practice, and there is something very insidious about trying to introduce it as a skill set. Something Jones thinks will kill off the English major faster than if we didn’t market it at all. Bewes reiterates, “that’s why we’re bad at selling it;: It’s not a sellable thing. We are in an era where everything is justified on the basis of its instrumental value; we cannot commoditize thought.” The decline of the humanities is not inevitable or natural, Bewes infers, it is under ideological attack. “If there are declines in the English major, it is because we are failing to do what literature does best; teach people to think for themselves.” We speak briefly about the political climate down south as one area of ideological attack, and I can’t help but think about the phones that rest constantly in our pocket as another. If it is the goal to make a complacent society, one that is entrenched with the values of capitalistic conglomerates, what better way than to chip away at the minds of the youth and to rid them of critical exploration and intelligent thought, constantly distract with visual goo like Tik-Tok and Instagram, and fashion a narrative that successfully compiles everything they’ve always wanted you to believe; money can buy happiness.
The dystopian future creeps steadily into view as society slowly snips at the tethers that hold the current study of humanities together. This glue can be referred to as the literary canon, a widely contested concept as it now proves un-inclusionary and elitist in its preference for “dead white men.” Betensky argues, not quite against the canon, but for recontextualizing it: “There has been a real push, if you read Dickens you’ll read Dickens alongside Mary Segal.” To recontextualize something you need to have a firm grip of the context itself; an idea lost on many students who are very quick to gloss over the past. The idea of “presentism,” as introduced by Jones, creates a problem because “people have no basic sense of history…They have no idea who Chaucer is or why anyone cared about him. The only thing people can say about him is that ‘he’s just a dead white male.’” There is an understandable unwillingness to explore the past because of its stains of racism, patriarchy, and classism; but what you lose with that is a conversation with the future. Sam Simmas from the Providence Public Library sees that there is an increased demand for diverse authors.” I don’t think interest in the humanities is declining, but it is changing… Hemingway? Definitely out.” We are getting closer to the essence of literary study by expanding the scope of its voices, and this is a crucial and positive outcome; making a text relate to the diverse quilt of everyday life, something Kell refers to as “having one foot in the ivory towers and one foot in the factory.” But we need to make sure that we do not devalue everything so much that we end up suspended, disbanded from a relationship between past and present; looking to our screens to tell us right from wrong because we have lost the capacity for autonomous thought.
But have we jumped the gun, is the English major really dead, dying, or undergoing chrysalis? Bewes reports with some numbers from Brown: In 2016 their English concentration graduates were 37, 2019 they saw its peak with 80 graduates, and in this current graduation cycle they’re at 79 graduates. From 2019 onward, the number of English graduates has hovered around the 60’s and 70’s mark. For Brown, the English graduate numbers were higher in the 90’s because creative writing was included in the English Literature major. Betensky comments on this trend at URI “we have a lot of interest now, especially in creative writing. I think people are coming back to English.” The URI English major peaked in 2004 with 400 graduates, dipped to below 100 throughout the 2010s, and is now sitting steady at around 200. The collegiate conception of canonical English may be in plateau, but the creatives are not. Elizabeth Francis from the Rhode Island Council for Humanities finds that public participation and humanities engagement has not declined. They have awarded $132,879 towards 15 innovative projects that “connect communities, expand knowledge of our collective past and present, and celebrate the rich cultural diversity in our state.” Francis notes the importance of the humanities in public engagement, as a vessel for allowing our many stories to be told; something that strengthens civic life and economic vitality.
I read a quote from MLK to Bewes; “In the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger… When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied…The individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society.” In his response,“In the humanities you are a participant in the knowledge you are gaining. That is the key notion of democracy.” I find a greater call for action. We cannot simply “lose interest” in something we are inherent participants of.
The readers, the dreamers, the poets, and artists will never disappear; it is just a question of how to keep them in a society that values everything in terms of investable skills. Gunning reads poetry in the corner, Betensky and Jones keep passionately lecturing on the past, Bewes continues questioning his students, and we all, those humanities creatures, sit raptured by the stories that make the lonely world a bit less lonely. Not worried about skill, not worried about outcomes, we sit, amid the fire; to read, to question, to eventually maybe tell our stories. Kell looks at me, across the cold divide of a computer screen and surrounded by the contents of his library; his soul, “we’re on the Titanic and we don’t give a damn.”