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The Humanities: What Went Right?

There’s no denying it. The humanities have been through a crisis, a period in which, according to the Humanities Resource Center Online of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, degrees went from 17.7 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to 6.7 percent. The absolute number of degrees awarded in the humanities declined, from 99,280 to 65,423—during a period when total undergraduate enrollments at American colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, increased by over 80 percent. The vice chancellor of a major public-university system boldly proclaimed, in the pages of The New York Times, that “the liberal-arts era is over.”

I am, of course, speaking of the years 1967 to 1983. Dark times indeed, it seems, for the humanities—times that led James E. Purdue, then vice chancellor of the SUNY system, to make that statement in the July 1, 1981, issue of the Times. Since then the picture has not been so dire: By 2010 (the last year for which statistics are available), humanities enrollments had settled at 7.6 percent, barely changed from 8.0 percent 10 years earlier, though lower than the recent peak of 9.2 percent, in 1992. The number of humanities majors increased 86.8 percent since 1983, faster than the 69.8-percent growth in overall undergraduate enrollments. This week Michael Bérubé made a similar observation.

Reports of the death of the humanities, then, seem to be greatly exaggerated, and recent discussions, such as the thoughtful “The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future” have the air of solutions in search of a problem large enough to warrant their implementation. Other recent reports, such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’s “Heart of the Matter,” are to be commended for the eloquent case they make for the humanities. But they do not directly address the perception that humanities enrollments are declining.

What if we changed the question? What if, instead of asking why humanities enrollments have declined so much, and of seeking current solutions to long-ago problems, we asked why humanities enrollments have held their own since 1983? Despite a drumbeat of public opinion insisting that humanities scholars are elitist, politically correct, obsessed with research at the expense of teaching, and unconcerned with students’ job prospects, pretty much the same percentage of undergraduates keep showing up at our doorsteps, year after year, looking to study what we teach.

Those negative views of the humanities certainly have their proponents, but our undergraduates don’t particularly seem to be among them, at least no more than at any time in the past 30 years. Why, then, seek radically to transform what we’re doing and risk undermining our success in response to a crisis that isn’t happening?

If we ask “What went right?” then new perspectives on the situation of the humanities open up, revealing different paths to the future.  The search for what went right might begin at the height of the culture wars. Is it a coincidence that over the past 30 years, the period with the largest percentage of humanities majors was in the early 1990s? Divisive though those debates were, they gave a real urgency to the question of what constitutes the proper field of study for humanists. Perhaps we’ve lost something (including some enrollments) during this past decade or so of informal truce in those wars. Perhaps, instead of trying to return to the golden age of 1967, we should be aiming for 1992, and should bring more, not less, public attention to our internal debates—conducted, one hopes, with civility and from a shared conviction that humanistic inquiry, in all its forms, is a worthwhile activity.

The search for what went right might take a hard look at the job market for our graduates. One recent survey, by the Web site payscale.com, paints a somewhat depressing picture of salaries, with humanities majors typically earning from $5,000 to $15,000 less than those with undergraduate professional degrees. Fifteen years after graduation, however, the recipients of terminal undergraduate degrees in the humanities are doing much better: Classics majors ($75,900) are outperforming accounting majors ($74,500); English majors ($65,500) are outperforming those in multimedia and Web design ($64,900); and history majors have caught up to nursing majors, at $70,200.

Undergraduate professional degrees frequently lead to relatively high starting salaries and relatively flat pay scales thereafter. Humanities undergraduates may struggle more in the first few years after graduation, but in the long run they frequently find career paths with greater long-term growth potential; the skills in reading, writing, and critical thinking that we all talk about turn out to have real-world uses. Students and the general public legitimately worry about employability, but there’s no reason for us to surrender to the mistaken belief that humanities degrees are a poor investment.

The question of “what went right” will, undoubtedly, turn out to have many more answers, and I think it’s high time we started seeking them out. Knowing what our successes are will help us to do even better in the future. We can find new ways to illuminate the connections between good humanities research and good humanities teaching, both for our students and for the larger public.

The Harvard College report rightly identifies philology, aesthetic appreciation, and ideological critique as three indispensable strands of humanistic inquiry. I welcome continued debate on how to balance those three, but that debate can take the form of engaged discussion about why the humanities matter instead of finger-pointing over who’s responsible for a largely imaginary decline in our numbers.

We should also debate whether an undergraduate degree in the humanities is meant to prepare students to look for jobs or to enrich their souls and make them better citizens. But we need to remind ourselves that the latter two aims have not, in fact, been achieved at the expense of the former.

Collectively, we’re better advocates for the humanities if we begin by celebrating what we’re doing right, rather than hand-wringing about what we mistakenly imagine we’re doing wrong. By tacitly accepting the false premises of our detractors within our own internal debates about the value of the humanities, we  guarantee getting the answers wrong and risk actually generating the plunge in enrollments that so many think we’re experiencing.

Alexander Beecroft is an associate professor of classics and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

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