What's going on? Three things, to judge from their absence from Graff's history, that have never happened before. First, the number of students studying English literature appears to be in a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline. In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year. Fewer students mean fewer professors; during the same time, we've gone from about fifty-five full-time faculty positions to about forty-five. Student priorities are shifting to more "practical" majors like economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money. In our new consumer-oriented model of higher education, schools compete for students, but so do departments within schools. The bleaker it looks for English departments, the more desperate they become to attract attention.
It would probably be more helpful if we had this discussion while referring to the relevant statistics:
1. All bachelor's degrees, 2005-06
2. All bachelor's degrees, 1970-71 through 2005-06 (selected years)
3. Same date, discipline division (selected years)
4. Total number of degrees, 1969-70 through 2005-06
5. Degrees in English, 1949-50 through 2005-06 (selected years)
As the ADE reported (PDF), raw numbers are actually trending upward. It's the % of degrees in relation to all degrees awarded, however, that has been dropping consistently since the early 90s--"from 4.7% to 3.7%" of the total. One has to consider degrees in relationship to the # of degrees awarded at the overall institution, within the institutional class, and so forth. Moreover, to really understand what's going on, we probably need breakdowns according to the Carnegie Classifications and geography, at the very least. Anecdotal data about declines in some departments' enrollments can thus be easily offset with increases at others (in fact, my own department's enrollment has been increasing steadily for the past few years; we're the third-largest major on campus, last time I checked). So it's "market share," as the ADE puts it, that is the pink elephant in the room, not a decline in the raw number of majors (since that is not, in fact, actually happening). A slight distinction, but some precision would be of use in this argument.