I am a poster child for the English major. I entered college in 1989 with an interest in human rights advocacy, planning to be a lawyer. I quickly fell in love with poetry in a class I’d somewhat randomly taken on John Keats and William Butler Yeats.
Before long, I immersed myself in literature, philosophy, religious studies and creative writing classes.
A Ph.D. in English from an Ivy League school followed and then a career that more than justified it: 10 years as a professor, author of a well-received book, 15 years leading nonprofit organizations. Most recently, I became a university president.
If you think you can’t have a successful career as an English major, I can talk your ear off about why you’re wrong. Still, my reaction to the current dialogue about humanities is this: The best way to save the English major is to abandon it.
In my own career, I leveraged what I learned studying English. I managed people, built schools, designed programs and lobbied at the highest levels of government; I raised money from philanthropy and created complex strategic plans. All of these activities depended on skills of speech, thought and observation honed in English classes. The major worked for me.
We don’t ask our students, some of the most talented young people in the world, whether they’d like to study the humanities. We tell them they must.
Nevertheless, higher education hasn’t had a true redesign of its approach to majors and courses in 50 years. The English major (like many other majors in the humanities and sciences), goes back much further than that. These majors were designed for cultures that the vast majority of today’s students would barely recognize, and many have outworn their usefulness.
A large number of majors’ relevance to pursuits associated with a career — or even a life well-lived — has become increasingly obscure. The pretense of specialization has siloed thought, created alienating, boutique ways of speaking and (no small thing) increased cost.
Let me be clear: When it comes to the English major, there is no shortage of value in learning to write well, to understand the structures of narrative and rhetorical persuasion, to use logic, to compare cultures, to understand the past and perhaps above all to develop empathy.
For these skills, literature is an exceptionally good tool (“equipment for living,” as the philosopher Kenneth Burke put it 85 years ago).
Yet the question on the minds of students and parents alike remains: “What is an English major for?”
It’s a question well worth asking.
Yes, the choice of a major is that utilitarian for most young people in a world where a college education can cost as much as a house in the suburbs, where the stakes of economic success are high not just for students but for their families — and where first-year students at selective universities are more likely to be approached on their way to class by consulting firms than they are to be encouraged to read “The Scarlet Letter” or “The Bluest Eye” under a tree.
I’m president at Minerva University, established in 2012 and one of the few institutions of higher education that, in recent memory, has asked the question, “What would we build if we could build it from scratch?” prior to ever enrolling a student.
We have no English major. We don’t ask our students, some of the most talented young people in the world, whether they’d like to study the humanities.
We tell them they must. Not in the name of some vague notion of a well-rounded education but because the knowledge and skills to be found in the humanities are essential.
We are developing problem-solvers, entrepreneurs and leaders from a hundred nations, weaving them together as one community to overcome the greatest challenges facing humanity.
At Minerva, we have just five majors: Computational Sciences, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Business, and Arts and Humanities. We have a foundational first-year curriculum that includes them all.
We integrate a set of core concepts across all courses that becomes a common language for our students and professors.
We do this within a project-based curriculum. That means students practice applying knowledge and skills from one discipline — philosophy, for example — to problems in another, like artificial intelligence. It means that each student works on projects with peers whose cultural context is different from their own. Along the way, they are encouraged to be creative and intellectually tenacious.
In sparing our students the zero-sum game of having to choose one highly specialized major over another, we have not cut off avenues to expertise or careers.
Quite the opposite. They become doctors and engineers, psychologists, software designers, cell biologists and visual artists and the founders of companies: 94 percent of our alumni tell us they have immediately followed the career path of their choice upon graduating.
Though they may not have the luxury of building from scratch, traditional universities could design degree pathways more like Minerva’s: interdisciplinary and project-based.
If they are inclined to stick up for the humanities — and for literature specifically — they should integrate it into every field of study, not require that every student sample a single course in the English department.
Abandoning the English major elevated the status of humanities at Minerva. If that sounds impossible, it may be time to step away from traditional higher education and into the spring breeze of new possibilities.
Mike Magee is president of Minerva University in San Francisco.
This story about the English major was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.