So I was reading an article in the New Yorker entitled The End of the English Major. Which relates the sad decline of English majors in favor of STEM. And full disclosure, despite being a writer, poet and reader of great literature, I can’t tell you how happy I am that all my daughters are STEM majors, not English majors. I have read articles in the past, explaining the benefits, to an employer, of a major in “English”, but I can’t say as I’ve found them all that compelling. If you’re an English major who has parleyed their education into something more than being a struggling author, who didn’t end up in a completely unrelated career, or who didn’t perpetuate the pyramid scheme by producing more English majors, then let me know how it’s done and why you’d recommend a degree in “English”.


To me, it’s the cost/benefit ratio. Given the ruinous debt incurred by a college education, what student would want to obtain a degree for which there’s little to no demand? All the various articles defending the English major essentially appeal to the intellectual and spiritual benefits. But that don’t pay the bills. Besides that, the New Yorker article devotes one paragraph to the argument that the decline is due to the emphasis on criticism and theory rather than literature itself—feminism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, Marxism etc… (I can’t begin to name them all.)

~ Others, though, suggest that the humanities’ loss of cultural capital has been hastened by the path of humanities scholarship itself. One theory is that the critical practices have become too specialized. Once, in college, you might have studied “Mansfield Park” by looking closely at its form, references, style, and special marks of authorial genius—the way Vladimir Nabokov famously taught the novel, and an intensification of the way a reader on the subway experiences the book. Now you might write a paper about how the text enacts a tension by both constructing and subtly undermining the imperial patriarchy through its descriptions of landscape. What does this have to do with how most humans read?

Certainly, any high school student with an interest in literature will no doubt come across literary criticism, the kind made incomprehensible with academese—language that will be utterly inaccessible to anyone but members of the priestly class. They might, for example, stumble across the book American Poets in the 21st Century, an all but unreadable and stultifying book full of chestnuts like these:

  • “Central to Spahr’s work of moving the poem away from poetry’s implicit emphasis on individuals and toward collectivities is the understanding that collectivities are often composed against a constitutive outside.” P. 144
  • “Morris effectively valorizes somatic experience to dispossess and repossess the language of identity. This is no hairsplitting intellectual argument…” p. 226
  • “As the remainder of this essay will demonstrate, the “cobbled solutions” Wheeler devised in her own attempts to invigorate poetry’s radical cultural force involve foregrounding, both formally and in her poems’ content, the contemporary “problems” of “steamroller” consumerism/commodification and of artistic assimilation so as ultimately to recast them as opportunities and resources.” p. 306
  • “In other poems, performivity asserts the constructed identity over the essential self when poems speak from the male voices of Casanova…” p. 58
  • “She tests the potentials of the work she samples in relation to their points of contact and fracture — where the palindrome meets the merry-go-round. What happens to both structures upon contact and what futurities are proposed at the point of contact?” p. 284

These examples were taken from my own review. And I ask you, what high school student, on what planet, in what universe, would be inspired to major in English having read any of this word salad—this miserably written academese by people who profess to know something about writing? If potential English majors were made to read this book first, it would be the end of English departments. (And it occurred to me that there are also schools of poetry that have gone down rabbit holes like these, paralleling criticism, but since no one reads this poetry anyways, it’s beating a dead horse.) So.

Moving on.

This whole post was begun to share a single sentence from the New Yorker article that— I don’t know. Was it some kind of performative irony? Because I tell you, I’ve reread it a dozen times and it’s completely above my pay grade. It follows in the same paragraph quoted above:

Rita Felski, whose book “Uses of Literature” is studied in Adams’s A.S.U. class, has argued that the professional practice of scholarship has become self-defeatingly disdainful of moving literary encounters. “In retrospect, much of the grand theory of the last three decades now looks like the last gasp of an Enlightenment tradition of rois philosophes persuaded that the realm of speculative thought would absolve them of the shameful ordinariness of a messy, mundane, error-prone existence,” she wrote. “Contemporary critics pride themselves on their power to disenchant.”

To which I can only say: Wut? I briefly tried to look up “rois philosophes” but, nah, forget it. I don’t know what in the hell she’s talking about. None of it. And I just think it’s supremely ironic that even the critics of the critics have made themselves incomprehensible, and then wonder why undergraduates have decided that organic chemistry and fluid physics are far easier to grasp. Do any of you understand what she said? If so, educate me.

In the meantime, to help you count sheep tonight, here is a paragraph from an Atlantic article entitled The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing:

~ The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.