The Mercury News Weekend
How to ensure that kids hate taking English classes in school
Imagine a world without English majors. In the last decade, the study of English and history in college has fallen by a third. At Columbia University, the share of English majors fell from 10% to 5% between 2002 and 2020. According to a recent story in The New Yorker, “The End of the English Major,” this decline is largely a result of economic factors — which departments get funded, what students earn after graduation, etc. Fields once wide open to English majors — teaching, academia, publishing, the arts, nonprofits, the media — have collapsed. Facing debt and an uncertain job market, students may find majors like communication arts and digital storytelling more pragmatic.
That's definitely a big part of the story. Yet many would-be humanities majors have turned toward, not more pragmatic degrees, but more esoteric, interdisciplinary majors, filled with courses that encourage use of words like “hegemony,” “intersectional” and “paradigm.” These educational tracks don't exactly lead to gainful employment, either.
Another part of the story is how demanding English literature is. Chaucer. The multivolume “Norton Anthology,” its thousands of wafery pages promising long hours of dense verse, verse, verse, but also, stories that have endured for over a thousand years.
And yet another important part of the story is that the study of English may have lost its allure, even among kids who enjoy reading. They are learning to hate the subject well before college. Both in terms of what kids are assigned and how they are instructed to read it, English class in middle and high school — now reconceived as language arts, ELA or language and literature — is often a misery.
This began largely with the Common Core, instituted in 2010. While glorifying STEM, these nationwide standards, intended to develop a 21st-century workforce, also took care to de-emphasize literature. By high school, 70% of assigned texts are meant to be nonfiction. Educators can maximize the remaining fiction by emphasizing excerpts, essays and digital material over full-length novels. Immersing children in the full arc of storytelling has largely gone out that window.
“The Common Core killed classic literature,” as Diane Ravitch noted in 2018.
So what do kids read instead? To even be considered, a work must first pass through the gauntlet of book bans and the excising of those books containing passages that might be deemed antiquated or lie outside the median of student body experiences. Add to that the urge to squelch any content that might be deemed “triggering” or controversial, the current despair over smartphoned attention spans and the desire to “reach students where they are.” Toni Morrison's short first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” a coming-of-age story, tends to be assigned over her longer, more intricate, more provocative — and to this reader, anyway, richer — novel “Beloved.”
Citing the need to appeal to fickle tastes with relevant and engaging content, teachers often lowball student competence. Too often, this means commercial middle grade and young adult novels such as “The Lightning Thief” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or popular fiction like “The Outsiders,” or on the more ambitious end, accessible works of 20th-century fiction like “To Kill a Mockingbird” — all engaging novels that kids might read on their own — in lieu of knottier works that benefit from instruction and classroom discussion. The palpable desperation to just get students to read a book doesn't come across as the kind of enticement that makes literature soar.
Those books that remain are read in a manner seemingly intended to leech all pleasure from the process. Even apart from the aims of the Common Core, the presiding goal is no longer instilling a love of literature but rather teaching to the test and ensuring students reach certain mandated benchmarks.
Nobody wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a useless college degree. But let's return to the question of whether English majors are essentially unemployable. I would argue that English majors could be exactly the kind of employees who are prepared for a challenging and rapidly changing workforce: intellectually curious, truth-seeking, undaunted by unfamiliar ideas, able to read complex works and distill their meaning in clear prose.
Outside specialized professions like engineering, medicine and software design, most areas of academic study have little bearing on paid jobs in the real world anyway. Students who've read a fair share of English literature might offer some interesting reasons as to why.