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Alas, the poor English major:
a writing teacher's lament

"In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature," Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in the New York Times. "By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science."

For Klinkenborg, a member of the Times editorial board who teaches writing at Yale and other colleges, those statistics represent a grim reality, one he calls "The Decline and Fall of the English Major."

In the diminishing number of English and humanities majors, he sees "a new and narrowing vocational emphasis."

"Parents have always worried when their children become English majors," Klinkenborg writes. "What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet . . . English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise."

Lamenting "a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities," Klinkenborg—who teaches a Yale class called "The Genre of the Sentence"—fearlessly charts his own course into the bounding, sometimes rough, seas of metaphor.

"Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience," he writes. "Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale."


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