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A Crisis in the Humanities?

June 10, 2013, 2:31 pm

(Guest post! Ben Schmidt is the visiting graduate fellow at the Cultural Observatory at Harvard, and a graduate student in history at Princeton University. His research is in intellectual and cultural history and the use of computational techniques for historical research. He writes about digital humanities on the blog Sapping Attention. Beginning fall 2013, he will be an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University. He blogs at Sapping Attention. I’m glad to have him here to give his analysis of the crisis in the humanities. Thanks, Ben!).

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about falling enrollments in the humanities disciplines. The news hook is a Harvard report about declining enrollments in the humanities; the moral they draw is that humanities enrollments are collapsing because the degrees don’t immediately lend themselves to post-graduate jobs. (Never mind that the Harvard report makes clear that the real competition is with the social sciences, not the 1% of humanities-curious first-years who major in computer science).

But to really sell a crisis, you need some numbers. Accompanying the story was a graph credited to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing a spectacular collapse in humanities enrollments. I made one of the first versions of this chart working on the Academy’s Humanities Indicators several years ago. And although it shows up in the press periodically to enforce a story of decay, some broader perspective on the data makes clear that the “Humanities in crisis” story is seriously overstated.

First of all, the chart never quite reinforces the point that something terrible is going on in the humanities right now. Anyone looking closely will notice, as Michael Bérubé has, that the real collapse of humanities enrollments happened in the 1970s. There is small lull in the Great Recession, but enrollments dropped more in the mid-1990s. Sure, a few Harvard majors have switched from history to government in the last decade: how much should any of us be worrying about that?

But even if the drop is old, it does succeed in making the humanities appear massively out of date. If we’re not declining, we’re still past the time of our relevance. And that’s a compelling story for all sorts of people. It makes humanists feel as though they deserve a larger share of the university, and that some pathology in the culture at large has them under siege. It helps more traditionalist critics of the humanities feel secure in claiming that something (deconstruction, multiculturalism, etc.) has toppled the fields from their normal place. And it means anyone with a formula to “fix” the humanities can promise a return to more halcyon days.

But baselines matter. If any period is a very strange abberation in the history of the American university, it’s the 1970s, not the 2010s. The chart doesn’t show well what the humanities used to look like, and it certainly doesn’t show how prominent they should look be in American life. The chart starts around 1967 because that’s the earliest the federal government has online records of enrollment. 1967 is not when the government started tracking enrollment numbers–it’s just the point from which it’s extremely easy to make a chart without leaving your computer. Years ago, I went through two decades of paper printouts from the Bureau of Education and copied by hand what enrollments looked like before 1967 in the four largest humanities majors.

(It should be clear, but these are stacked–about 10% of all degrees were in the big humanities fields in the late 1940s. These four majors form the vast majority of all humanities degrees, particularly in the earlier period. I’m speculating a bit about the total BA numbers before 1955 or so by subtracting a fixed percentage off the total to account for first-professional degrees, which weren’t counted separately in the reports.)

So the WSJ chart starts at essentially the moment of highest enrollment–that’s the only point from which the humanities appear to have fallen by half. Degrees are a bit lower as a percentage of the university than they were in 1948: humanities were about 10% back then, and more like 7-8% in recent years. But if anything, this chart overstates the drop in the last 60 years: it doesn’t include all the new area studies that have crept into the humanities in the last half-century. And, of course, it includes history, which was often classed as a social science at mid-century but which most now think of as a humanities discipline.

Moreover, “percentage of all degrees” is a strange denominator. Taking into account the massive changes in the American university since the Second World War, it’s the resilience of the humanities that should be surprising. If you care about humanistic education, you shouldn’t be worrying about market share inside the university. You should care about the whole population. And while the 60s boom still stands out, we give out far more population-normalized degrees in the humanities now than we did in the 1950s or the 1980s.

The wild swings don’t support the stories we want to tell about marginalization or declension. Look at the period of the humanities’ great recovery from its post-70s trough. It’s the late 1980s and early 1990s–in other words, the heart of the culture wars, period that almost everyone agrees was ruinous to the humanities. Should we conclude we need to get back to some deconstruction in our courses? That seems unlikely.

We shouldn’t be assessing the health of the humanities by market-share metrics that are far more about demographics and the changing face of higher ed than they are about the intellectual shifts in the disciplines themselves. Talking about crisis doesn’t help us. Humanists obviously get great pleasure from describing themselves on the knife’s edge, but they’re not especially effective at mobilizing the language of crisis to actually advance our fields.

I suspect we’re probably better if we don’t buy into the narrative of collapse at all. More people are majoring in humanities fields. More books are being published in them. Whatever problems we have, they’re not really about quantity. A fixation on corporatist measures of market share as representing the success of these fields is completely contrary to their aspirations. New enrollments in graduate programs are almost certainly not materially helping the field, but we too often act as if they are.

It’s a non-story to say that the humanities are a minor but important part of the economy of the changing university. Everyone loves a narrative. But when someone tells you the humanities are collapsing, it’s worth remembering that even the universities, to say nothing of the country as a whole, have never been the bastions of humanistic learning we want to remember.

An earlier version of this post appeared at Sapping Attention

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