There is no crisis in English Literature
Please stop talking about this
People are upset about Emma Duncan’s piece in the Times (‘We should cheer the decline of the humanities’) and have taken it as some sort of ugly polemical assault on the humanities tribe as people or the value of art in general. I now find this topic boring largely because so few arguments from Eng. Lit. people take account of the core ideas and data. It’s almost like studying English doesn’t always set you up well for critical thinking…
Let’s quote what matters:
the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that the return for men on a degree in economics and medicine is about £500,000, for English it is zero and for creative arts it is negative… The figures for women are similar but a little less extreme.
So yes, the arts are valuable and good for the economy and people from all backgrounds should have the right to study them. But come on—when people get degrees that are literally worth zero, some of them will choose not to do that anymore. It doesn’t mean we don’t value Shakespeare, or that life is all about horrible money, or that the economy will tank because Netflix needs lit grads, or whatever. It means some people got sick of getting a degree and then working on minimum wage. Fair enough. Good luck to them.
Did you know, by the way, that the recent report showing the drop in English grads since 2012 also says this: “In 2020, UK Arts and Humanities research activity was 49% higher than the global average.” There was also an increase in people studying English at the post-grad level over that time period. Yes, an increase. Also, the last two times dips like this happened in Comp. Sci. it didn’t seem to herald the end of computers… The idea that this is some depressing onset of philistinism and the loss of attention-spans is tabloid hand-wringing for literature grads. And if you choose to take Middlemarch off the syllabus you can expect to get less attention, yes.
First there was a large expansion of people at university, pushing up the number of literature grads, then a contraction. It’s not the end of the world, or the English department, or anything else. When this row erupted in the USA a few weeks ago, I pointed out that English enrolments are back at their 2000 level, that people have been moaning about this for decades, and that the humanities are thriving elsewhere. Joel Miller wrote a good piece about the way English enrolments are changing, and in some places increasing. (At least one English professor with increasing enrolments reads this blog, so we’re in good company.)
I don’t doubt that life as a young academic isn’t much fun right now, or that living through a period of contraction is unpleasant. Their work is valuable and we need them. But this isn’t a reason to encourage young people to take on debt with no improved career prospects,—and the two things shouldn’t be confused.
Lots of people still study and teach English, we just don’t need quite as many of them as we thought. We still have plenty of English grads. We also have fewer people who will regret their subject choice and earn nothing from it.
So please, stop talking about this like it’s an apocalypse. And learn to think at the margin.