The Humanities in Crisis, or Not

David Brooks
David Brooks – Wikimedia

Last week was a great-horrible week for those of us who teach fields like history, philosophy, languages, and literature (hereafter, “the humanities”) and wanted to be reminded (a) how essential we are and (b) how much of a crisis we’re in.

Among other happenings, the New York Times published a column by David Brooks lamenting that the share of college graduates majoring in the humanities has halved in the past half-century, then the following day printed an editorial decrying said decline. All this after the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published The Heart of the Matter, a report by a commission (whose membership included Brooks) set up in 2010 in response to a bipartisan Congressional request. It begins:

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.

(I don’t quite know what to make of the fact that the commission’s subcommittee on liberal arts included two of the country’s most respected university presidents — Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard and John I. Jenkins of Notre Dame — and George Lucas…)

Acknowledging the increasing emphasis placed on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM disciplines) and the seeming decline of the humanities and social sciences, the authors warn

At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion—we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.

Sounds like a crisis to this college history professor.

Not so fast, writes Jordan Weissman today for The Atlantic:

With all this feverish talk of decline, one might expect there to be some evidence that the ranks of English and philosophy majors are, in fact, collapsing — or even noticeably thinning out. The problem is, there isn’t any, at least when it comes to undergraduate education. By the standards of recent history, the humanities seem to be faring just fine on campus.

Robinson Hall at Harvard
Robinson Hall, home to the Harvard University Department of History – Wikimedia

He recycled some figures from history grad student Ben Schmidt, who argued earlier this month in the Chronicle of Higher Education that

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?

Click through to see the graphs he produced charting the ebbs and flows for English, History, Languages, and Philosophy majors since 1950. A quick summary: after a dip in the early 1950s, those degrees as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees enjoyed a boom that peaked at over 16% in 1966; then they began a steep decline, bottoming out around 6% in 1985, making a small recovery in the early Nineties, and then gradually settling back near the 1985 level since then. But Schmidt points out that if you treat humanities degree as a percentage of the American college-age population, recent history hasn’t presented all that much of a crisis: “…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.”

I’m not sure how much relief I take from their articles, but I do appreciate that both Weissmann and Schmidt are trying to put things in historical perspective more sophisticated than Brooks’ year-to-year comparison between 1963 (14%) and 2013 (7%). Weissman emphasizes how “The typical college student in 2013 is not the typical college student of 1966,” and Schmidt (the historian) presents an even longer view:

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.

Bethel Gen Ed Pillars
Two of the four pillars of the Bethel general education curriculum. Our department teaches over 50% of students taking L courses and 40% taking Christianity and Western Culture — plus several U and G courses, and one each in the K and Z categories.

I have little to add to their analysis, except to suggest that number of majors (no matter how it’s contextualized) probably isn’t the best measure of the rise or fall of the humanities, which are at the center of a model of education in which the major isn’t really all that important.

In our response to the rather ominous program review taking place this summer at Bethel, our department emphasized the significance of our contribution to Bethel’s general education curriculum: we play leading roles in two of its courses/categories and contribute to four or five more. So while we do well to graduate the twenty-some majors we had last year, do we look at the fact that 50% of the students in our classes last year were majoring in professional programs and lament that there aren’t more history majors — or celebrate that hundreds of future accountants, HR reps, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, and teachers were studying history as part of their college experience?

While I do share the widespread sense that the liberal arts as a model of higher education — to go beyond the humanities, which is but one crucial part of the larger project — is not as highly valued as it may have been in our sepia-colored memories of yore, I also wonder if more college students aren’t now graduating from colleges and universities that have some sort of core curriculum that requires coursework in humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences even for those students on more vocational tracks.


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