History of the English Profession
Today there are 380 million people who speak English as their first language, 300 million who speak English as their second language, and 100 million who speak English as a foreign language. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 62,000 people graduate each year with a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or PhD in English studies. Today, higher education is essential in almost every career choice, and going to an English school and graduating with an English degree means many possible career paths.
It was not always this way. English has its roots dating back to 450 AD when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from modern day Denmark and Northern Germany. As they mixed with the Celtic people of modern day Britain, the language we label Old English developed. It would be difficult for most English speakers today to understand.
Old English developed into Middle English from around 1100-1500AD. This was the time of William the Conqueror. The third era, entitled the Modern English era, dates from 1500-1800. This was the time of the Great Vowel Shift. Also, the Renaissance of classical learning introduced many new words and phrases. The invention of the printing press put the common English language into print. Books became less expensive, resulting in more people learning to read. In 1604, the first dictionary was printed, and this era marked the first time there was a standardization of English with fixed spelling and grammar.
Historically, university study in the Modern English era was for the privileged elite, and the first college graduates studied mainly for the priesthood. However, in Europe, in the second half of the 18th century, people began studying English as a replacement for religious studies. The study of literature began to replace the study of religion, as English majors began to analyze man’s writings to draw moral and ethical conclusions.
In the Late Modern English era, 1800 to present day, the Industrial Revolution created the need for many new words; as did technology. In the United States, Spanish vocabulary was introduced through the settlement of the American West as well as French words through the slave trade in Louisiana.
Not only did the English language change in the United States through the years, but also the dynamics of higher education. The switch from religious study to a broader, secular focus followed suit in the United States. The first American colleges were traditionally for Puritan ministers; however, by 1800 many new secular institutions of higher learning were being built to specifically focus on the study of agriculture, science and technology.
As in Europe, higher education was reserved for upper-class, white males. Much later, when the federal government passed the GI Bill, student populations finally shifted as lower socio-economic groups were at last able to attend universities. Further population shifts occurred after the Civil Rights era, giving opportunity for racial diversity on college campuses.
Another recent change in university studies was the increase in Distance Learning. The first online university was accredited in 1991, making higher learning possible for an entire population of students such as working adults, international students, and other non-traditional students who previously could not attend college because of their inability to live on campus and attend full-time. The virtual classroom has changed the way we think of higher education today.
The academic degree has advanced over the years as well. Historically, an English degree meant studying the masterpieces of British and American literature. The emphasis was on analytical reading, writing, rhetoric, and persuasive expression. Now, English majors must analyze literature, create good writing, and understand the cultural and historical basis for the writings they study. English majors can expect courses in literary theory, creative writing, academic writing, British and American literature, multicultural literature, history, social sciences, and foreign language.
Today’s English majors are prepared to find a satisfying and successful career on one of many career paths.
Last Updated: 08/20/2013