Go Right Ahead and Decline.......I've Got My Reasons
While for nostalgic reasons, I greatly value English Deparments in general. I'm also quite content with the decline in English majors overall. This is purely bred of self-interest though, as I'd prefer that everyone intent on writing science fiction switches their major to business. The less competition the better. (I'm sorta assuming that people lacking my English education have little chance of out-writing me). Since so few writers are actually successful enough that they don't require some sort of auxillary income, having less writers running about certainly increases my chances of accomplishing this (as does living in a third-world country where the cost of living is next to nothing).
That said, I really think the decline seems to be turning around, at least a bit. The shift away from humanities has led to a sort of backlash. This is likely the result of employers' frequent complaint that todays graduates have poor communication skills. In the last few years, at more than one of the Institutions I've attended, a much greater emphasis has been placed on composition for all students. The year I started at University of Idaho, they'd just added two required freshman classes to the curriculum, that offered a sort of interdisciplinary study of different cultural aspects or issues within society, (I took one on gender, which was deceptively and seductively intitled "Sex and Culture," and another on time). They each involved a fair amount of writing, and a study of literature and history related to it. While these classes were probably an utter waste of time for English majors (though I was a journalism major at the time), and annoyed me to no end; they do represent an attempt to return to the "liberal arts education" (that was the catch-phrase around U of I at the time). Just a few years before they had added the rhetoric requirement to the curriculum, which required a course in philosophy, persuasive writing (which I took) or some other related subject. This was all on top of the two basic composition classes, and a public speaking class.
At Seton Hill University, there are many required courses intended to ensure that students recieve a liberal arts education. Though I was able to get out of some of these (some how a couple semesters of Literatue of Western Civilization counted for Western Culture and Traditions) they take Seminar in Thinking and Writing VERY, VERY seriously. In fact, the equivalent courses from other Universitys wont even count for it (Believe me I tried...I even tried to trade in a speech class, a pair of comp classes and persuasive writing for those 3 credits, this is all despite having spent two years in almost exclusively writing classes that varied from fiction, to journalism to composition). As much as it annoyed me, this really shows a dedication to the teaching of English.
In terms of literature, I tend to disagree with Chace's assesment that English departments need to pick out a special bunch of books to stick on the top-shelf up in the ivory-tower. I think classes like ours, where the focus is on HOW to analyze literature, rather than which books are REALLY, REALLY important to read are far more important. When Chace mentioned a speech, wherein a colleague said the tank had run dry, it seems that the major cause of that IS the basic theory that good literature has to have been written before 1950, and that there is some special set of books that makes up this group. If one is limiting themselves to trying to reach break-throughs in the analysis of MacBeth and The Great Gatsby, there is a distinct possibility that the tank is truly empty. Just as scientists have already figured out how electricity works, and economists have determined the relationship of supply and demand, there is comes a time when there is little work left to be done. The suggestion that there aren't continually new frontiers within literature, is really kind of offensive to anyone writing a novel. As long as people keep writing, there will always be more to explore (as we have in this class). While obviously familiarity with the classics is extremely necessary to the study of literature, it should not be limited in this respect. Here at Seton Hill, in at least some of my classes, we have done this. Obviously, we read mostly new works in this class, but others have followed suite as well. Though in American Lit 1800-1915, we refrained from reading anything past, well, 1915, in European Lit we read novels ranging from Ancient Rome, to Icelandic Sagas, up to recent Nobel Prize winners, less than a decade old. In American Lit 1915-Present, we got to select a contemporary novel, out of the choices the publication dates ranged from the 1960s-1970s. This combination of studying the classics, mixed with a healthy dose of present works, seems to be the right direction for English departments to take. While the study of classics is necessary, the connection to the present may prevent the dismissial of the study of literature as a dead-end, like the study of Greek and Roman classics.