Are the humanities declining?

Decline of the humanities: Don’t believe it


THE SORBONNE in Paris Photo: Seth J. Frantzman
Anyone who keeps up on the happenings in higher education will eventually come across the canary-like call that the humanities face a crisis in enrollment, funding, and a resultant decline. We are told that because of this decline a unique and important aspect of intellectual life is being lost. Don’t believe it. Humanities are not “declining,” they are producing more graduates than at any time in the past.

The decline thesis slips into our thoughts via all manner of media, not only among academics. For instance on June 23The New York Times ran an article about “the decline and fall of the English major.” The author complained that “the teaching of humanities has fallen on hard times.”

Undergraduates are “under pressure to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs.” There is a “new and narrowing vocational emphasis” in college. According to the statistics offered, in 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a BA in English, but last year only 62 did. The bottom line: because humanities are not viewed as economically viable, no one wants to study them.

Similarly, William Chace in The American Scholar bemoaned the fact that in one generation “the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent.”

In the data comparing 1971 with 2003 we see that history declined from 18% of majors to 10.7%. Chace focuses on the study of English and how it helps us “write and think better.” Supposedly “finding pleasure in such reading” showed that “education was not all about getting a job.”

A July 12 essay in The Wall Street Journal by Lee Siegel pointed out that in the 1960s about 14% of degrees were in the humanities while today, the figure is a mere 7 percent.

He argues that in fact the humanities have destroyed themselves by turning such joys as reading literature into “bland exercises in competition… reduced to right and wrong answers.” Therefore “it is hardly a surprise that in this atmosphere, college students choose a major in fields that are most relevant to the life around them.”

The decline thesis is based on the assumption that humanities faculties must necessarily be on par with other disciplines such as science, engineering, business and law.

For instance, Chace notes in his article that “with more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates.”

THE THESIS, however, doesn’t take into account how higher education has changed over time. Most disciplines that require degrees today were once served by apprenticeships.

In the 19th century very few professions required a higher education, whereas today nearly every profession does.

This has resulted in a multiplication of the number of disciplines one may and must study. The humanities thus appear to have been “sidelined.”

It also presents a false narrative that in the “good old days” people went to college not for the money or for a profession, but just for the joy of learning. Those like Chace seem to scoff at the notion that people might actually go to college, where they increasingly have to pay huge amounts of money per semester to attend, for an education that “is all about getting a job.”

With the largest number of students attending college in history, almost 21 million in the US in 2012 versus only 15 million as recently as 2000, why is there an expectation that legions of these students will sit around for four years to study something that, however interesting, won’t land them a job? Maybe this is the model for the children of the extremely wealthy, but why is there a supposition it should be the norm? The notion that the humanities have declined relies on a reading of history that imagines a world in the 19th century or 8th century where supposedly large numbers of people were versed in philosophy and history. The ideal is that since many years ago everyone was provided the opportunity to study the humanities, therefore today every university should have a robust program.

But this misses an understanding of the number of people in places like 1860s Paris who would have had degrees in humanities.

Consider that Harvard College in 1840 had only 250 students (it has 6,655 today).

The actual numbers were minuscule.

We read histories of Karl Marx and imagine that the whole world was then populated by men of letters, but we mistake his tiny circle for wider society. Then we make the mistake of suggesting that our modern society should mirror this false conception of the past. Yes, the population of countries was also less in the 1840s, but the percentage of those receiving first degrees has mushroomed far faster than populations have grown.

The theory that humanities have declined also presents a false assumption that society needs as many people with degrees in history, English and philosophy as it needs accountants, computer scientists, lawyers and doctors. Since we know that some of these jobs previously did not require college degrees, we can see the explosion in the numbers of people receiving first degrees as simply a new way to meet the demand of the job market.

Moreover, the actual numbers of people studying the humanities has actually increased. Michael Berube, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, wrote a July 1 essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “the humanities declining: Not according to the numbers,” notes that there were 143,549 graduates in the humanities in 1970 while there were some 200,000 graduates in 2010.

Far from a “decline,” the past 50 years has seen an explosion in the number of humanities departments as more and more colleges and universities are founded.

Humanities departments present themselves as being starved for funding, but they are only starved because there is such a vast, Malthusian quantity of them. It’s like increasing the number of cars by 10,000 percent and then complaining that the price of gasoline has gone up. The decline in funding is related to over-expansion, not contraction.

The number of degrees granted in the humanities is at an all-time high, not percentage- wise, but by total numbers. If in the period of the School of Athens there were just a few dozen philosophers, today there are probably a million people in the West with degrees in the subject. Whether they produce superior philosophy is perhaps the more pertinent question; this is actually where the decline is. It is not a decline in quantity, but in quality.

In attempting to ensure each university has a viable, well-funded humanities faculty, there has been no questioning of the need for all these graduates or what intellectual endeavors they are engaged in. The actual level of humanities knowledge has declined precipitously in the past 50 years.

If my parent’s generation learned Greek and Latin, my generation can barely understand a smattering of Spanish.

In the 1856 Harvard entrance exam students were expected to answer the following: “describe the route of the 10,000, or lay it down on a map; where is the source of the Danube, Volga, Ganges, of the Amazon?; Who was Pericles – the Man and his Policy.”

Yes, knowledge has declined, but the humanities are doing just fine.

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