NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

College Graduates Don't Know Much About English

June 9, 2000

The average English major graduates knowing much about racial, ethnic, and sexual politics, but very little about literary history and classic authors, according to a study of undergraduate English programs by the National Association of Scholars, a higher education reform group in Princeton, New Jersey.

The study surveys the evolution of English majors since the 1960s at 25 of America's most select liberal arts institutions.

Among the trends the NAS identified between 1964-65 and 1997-98:

  • While the total number of English courses almost doubled, the proportion of courses dealing with major authors, periods and genres declined from an average of 58 percent of departmental offerings in 1964 to 35 percent in 1997.
  • Survey courses in English literature, compulsory in a majority of departments in 1964-65, were required in only 16 percent of departments by 1997-98.
  • In 1964-65 courses on Shakespeare were either required or part of obligatory course cluster in 48 percent of the departments; in 1997-98 these requirements existed in only 16 percent of all departments.
  • Courses on racial, ethnic, or sexual topics, negligible in 1964-65, were featured in almost every program by 1989-90 and proliferated the next decade.

The number of English electives increased by 74 percent overall, and at some colleges it doubled or even tripled between 1964 and 1997. Because of this substantial increase in available courses, students took a smaller percentage of a department's total offerings, further fragmenting the curriculum.

Source: "Losing the Big Picture: The Fragmentation of the English Major Since 1964," June 2000, National Association of Scholars, 221 Witherspoon Street, Second Floor, Princeton, New Jersey 08542-3215, (609) 683-7878.


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