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’ ).