English departments are really dying

To the editor:

Reading Mr. Phelps recent article, “Are English Departments Really Dying”, I was surprised by the conclusions he drew from the data he referenced at the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). He tells us, essentially, that the degrees/departments aren’t really dying, but that undergraduate emphasis is shifting from the ‘pure’ / traditional English degree to “more applied, vocational, and skill-based programs.”

I was surprised because this does not really align with my own understanding of the crash & burn we see in the humanities.

So I checked the numbers, using the table he referenced.

And I was surprised all over again to discover what seems to be significant arithmetic errors in Mr. Phelps’ calculations.

He tells us, as an example, that “English bachelor’s degree completion declined from about 7.6 percent of all degrees in 1971 to about 4.3 percent in 2021.” The 7.6% is correct, dividing 63K degrees in English by 839K degrees overall in 1971. But if we divide the English degrees awarded in ’21 (35,762) by the total degrees in ’21 (2,066,445) we find that only 1.7% of all degrees that year were in “English Language & Literature”. (That probably explains the New Yorker’s use of the phrase ‘freefall’ ).

So where did the 4.3% come from?

We don’t really know, of course, but if we divide the total number of English degrees awarded in ’21 (35,762) by the grand total degrees awarded in ’71 (839,730) we do find what would be an entirely bogus 4.3%.

Thinking this might simply be a fluke, I also double-checked the % calculations for “Communication/ Journalism” and “Communications Technologies” (the other related fields he notes in the following paragraphs). The same error occurs….dividing the ’21 area degrees awarded by the ’71 total degrees given.

Looking, then, at the conclusions drawn, Mr. Phelps tells us, “If one combines English with the various communications majors … enrollments have increased over the years, from 8.9 to 15.6 percent.” Unfortunately, this is not true.

In fact, if we use the correct ’21 numbers as the base for ’21 % calculations, we find that even combined ‘enrollments have fallen from 8.9% in ’71 to 6.3% in ’21. If, however, we use the wrong ’71 numbers as the base, indeed, we do find the 15.6% total.

The same error occurs when looking at the next chart comparing “Area/ethnic studies”, “Liberal Arts” and English. The combined total doesn’t climb from 1.2% to 5.9%; it only climbs from 1.2% to 2.4%.

Strangely, the calculation performed for “Visual & Performing Arts” does seem to be correct, using ’21 data to calculate the 4.4%.

Unfortunately, the nature of this error completely undermines the point Mr. Phelps seeks to make…that the “freefall” decline noted by others is more a shifting of similar interest (even an increase in interest) to related (more practical fields). In fact what we see is a consistent story of precipitous decline.

My own analysis here is cursory, so it’s more than possible that I am missing some assumption that the author might be making that would explain the seemingly in-error percentages…but right now it just looks like a mistake.

Kansas City, Missouri