Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were less cherished? Yes. That would be 1985.

The humanities, you might have heard, are in peril. Deep peril. We're talking the long, dark night of the comp lit departments, here. According to David Brooks, they are "being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market" while simultaneously "committing suicide" via a nasty overdose of race and gender studies. Brooks's New York Times colleague Verlyn Klinkenborg concurs that "the teaching of humanities has fallen on hard times." Speaking at Brandeis University's commencement last month, The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier asked lamentfully: "Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?" 

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Meanwhile, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has produced a humanities rescue plan

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. 

As The Wall Street Journal noted earlier this month, the number of undergraduates earning degrees in English, foreign languages, history, or philosophy fell by about half between 1966 and 2010. But as shown in this great graph courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the late 1960s were a historical outlier, no doubt connected to the sudden flood of baby boomers onto campus. Most of the subsequent drop-off, meanwhile, happened in the 1970s. Since then, the humanities have accounted for roughly 6 to 8 percent of all college degrees.  

David_Silbey_Humanities_as_Percentage_of_Degrees.png

None of this is particularly shocking. The typical college student in 2013 is not the typical college student of 1966. They're older. There's a good chance they commute to school, or are taking classes online. And they're more pre-professional. As an industry, higher education has expanded to cater to them. According to the Department of Education, firefighting, homeland security, and law enforcement majors now make up about 2 percent of all graduates. They barely existed in the 1970s. Health professions now account for almost 8 percent of grads, more than double their share four-decades ago. Suffice to say, the 28-year-old going to school today to finish a B.A. in nursing, or criminal justice, is not the same student who would have been studying Homer in 1972. 

But looked at from another angle, one could argue that humanities studies have actually undergone a bit of a renaissance, so to speak. Yes, the percentage of lit lovers on campus is near the lows of 30 years ago. But a far higher fraction of all young adults finish college today. As a result, the portion of college-aged Americans with a degree in a humanities discipline has jumped by around one full percentage point. 

So to revisit Wieseltier's question: Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were less cherished? Yes. That would be 1985.   

David_Silbey_Humanities_College_Age_Population.png


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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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