In a damning assessment of the state of college education in the United States in the American magazine The New Yorker last month, Louis Menand noted that, of the 1.5 million students who will graduate from colleges and universities in the United States this year, only four percent had majored in English. This figure seems even more start when compared with the 22 percent who majored in business, the largest proportion of all.
Then, Menand went on to write, ‘There are more bachelor’s degrees awarded every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined. ’ No wonder that, earlier in his report, he proclaimed, ‘College … is, basically, a sleepover with grades. '
What Menand called the ‘hypercompetitive’ nature of university studies reflects the same quality in the job market into which the new graduates will be trying to find their coveted slots. The relatively low number of English majors mirrors both the cultural devaluation of language and literature studies – especially, it seems, one’s own. And, in this increasingly ‘practical world, ’ it points to the meager number of relatively ill-paying job to which English majors are consigned: an ever-shrinking number of university professorships in the same field (in which it seems that, soon, all languages except programming codes will be ‘dead’ languages); the dwindling number of posts for reporters, critics and the like for the rapidly declining number of print media; and, at the bottom of the sorry pile, public school teachers at the primary and secondary levels.
Nothing in Menand’s report suggests that the trend is in any way reversible. In a world that is self-combusting, it’s difficult to argue for the need for more Chaucer scholars. Still, the de-emphasis on languages and language skills is, noticeably, taking its toll on the output of graduates in virtually all fields. There are few jobs tailored for university graduates that do not entail some kind of writing – one aspect of which is, presumably, communication.
It has now become an accepted fact that most graduates of institutions as famous and laudable as Harvard and Stanford (say nothing of the other 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States) – in fields from what were once known as the ‘liberal arts’ (a term, Menand adds, that has been decommissioned) to medicine – are unable to consistently write a grammatical declarative sentence in English because they don’t know what one is.
Think, then, what the plurality of business majors are capable of, language-wise. In an increasingly globalized working environment, communications has become more, not less important. If communications is to be valued as more than a form of technology, some radical – and currently unimaginable – changes are called for. Good grammar is more than polite; it is the means to effective communication and true understanding in a world in which international misunderstandings could have deadly consequences.
Hugh Nelson is an e-learning specialist who has worked in the education industry for more than 10 years. He currently lives in Hong Kong and is a director of UniRoute, a company that runs educational websites helping students prepare and successfully apply for post-graduate studies abroad.