As I left for vacation in July, I tucked A Changing Major: The Report of the 2016–17 ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major into my bag. Not exactly beach reading, I thought, but since my own department slipped from 567 majors in 2012 to 294 in 2018 and is projected to have only 184 majors by 2021, the report felt like a must-read. The Association of Departments of English, a project of the MLA, provides a network for departmental leaders, just as the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages does for chairs of language departments. Both the ADE and the ADFL have long led curricular thinking, and the ADE report on the major is no exception. ADE colleagues scanned departmental Web sites and conducted a survey of ADE-member English departments to create a detailed portrait of English majors.
The term public humanities emerged shortly after the National Endowment for the Humanities was established in 1965. Initially, public humanities programs were the province of professionals outside the academy who led entities like state humanities councils and recruited academics who were willing to translate their scholarship for wider audiences. By the mid-1990s, academic humanists began creating their own mechanisms for engaging with wider publics.
Talk with colleagues from another institution, and conversation often shifts to shared concerns about declining enrollments in classes, majors, and minors; smaller numbers of students learning languages other than English; and, especially, public attacks on the humanities. As a former high school English teacher, I think changes in the K–12 world contribute to these challenges. Public high school education has suffered deleterious changes in recent decades. Teachers are required to spend an appalling amount of time preparing students for, administering, and dealing with the fallout of standardized tests; students’ concepts of reading and writing have become correspondingly more reductive and instrumental; and budget cuts have eliminated many school programs that make the humanities visible and valuable to local communities.