Nicholas Goldberg: Where have all the English majors gone?
The University of Chicago recently received a letter from the English department that is both sad and telling. The English department has been in a state of constant transition, ever since its first president, Edward Taylor, took over in 1955. The current English department president is Peter Stris. Stris was also Taylor’s first academic dean, and the English department is the oldest department in the University of Chicago. It is not a new department, but rather one with a history stretching back to 1871.
In 2015, Professor Thomas Béghin, who was an English major as a matter of fact, took up a position as Head of the English Department. At that time, he had about three dozen students, some of whom were his undergraduates. The numbers have since grown to well over 100 students, with students from all over the world, and from undergraduate and graduate programs.
Béghin had a very different perspective on the English department’s history and its future. He wrote a letter in response to the letter received by the English department from the University of Chicago in which the English department writes, “We wish for English majors to feel that they can excel academically at the University of Chicago. We also think that you can and should. We wish you to thrive in and enjoy your university experiences.”
The letter continued to reiterate the fact that the department has “numerous students from all over the world” and that they have “a strong presence on campus for both undergraduate and graduate programs.” It then went on to note how the English department “is a community, with friends to meet with when you come here to study. In fact, at many campus events, we are in the room to meet with friends.”
However, the English department went on to tell them how “we could certainly do more to support the graduate English program that is so important to the University of Chicago,” stating that there are not enough grad students taking English. The reasons given were that there are not enough grad students