The Real Reason the Humanities Are 'in Crisis'

Women started deserting subjects like history and English decades ago.

Columbia Pictures

Multiple articles over the last few months have proclaimed that “humanities fall from favor,” “interest fades in the humanities,” or that the humanities are “under strain around the globe.” Commentators tend to attribute the decline to two major developments: significant funding cuts to history, literature, and arts programs at public universities and political criticism of the humanities. Republican governors have proposed cuts to humanities departments at state universities to rebalance funding towards more obviously “practical” subjects. North Carolina’s governor Patrick McCrory stated in January 2013 that he planned to change the state’s legislation on higher education funding so that “it’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” Like other critics, McCrory did not want taxpayers to subsidize subjects that did not seem to lead directly to students securing a job.

In the United States, the debate continues about massive budget cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities for 2014, while some state universities in Pennsylvania even plan to close music and language departments. The problem extends beyond American borders. Since 2009, funding for arts and humanities has decreased around the world.

These are serious developments and they demand a serious response. But the apparent crisis is not what it seems. As someone who spends much of her time speaking to students about their choice of majors, I believe that many people have actually been talking past the issue.

The histrionics have masked a deeper story—a story of women’s choices in higher education.

Though the decline of the humanities is getting a lot of attention now, the major drop in enrollments happened between 1970 and 1985. Humanities enrollments dipped from 17.2 percent of all degrees in 1967 to around seven percent in the early 1980s. In 2011, humanities degrees still constituted 6.9 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. In other words, the decline stabilized ten years before current freshmen were even born.

Current debates were sparked by a much smaller decline. In 2011, there are seven percent fewer students studying the humanities than there were in 2009. The current downward drift is a gentle slope in comparison to the 1970s, when humanities enrollments fell off a cliff.

So the rhetoric of a deep crisis in the humanities does not bear out in the numbers. As overall enrollment has increased at institutions of higher education, very similar percentages of the college-age population have graduated with a degree in English over the past twenty years. In fact, there were proportionally more English majors amongst 21-year-olds in 2011 than in 1981.

Even if there is no substantial crisis now, what caused the decline in enrollments in the 1970s? And why does it still matter today?

As Ben Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, has shown in a series of great graphs, women’s choices of major really explain most of the drop. Starting in the late 1970s, women became the majority of the undergraduate student body at colleges and universities in the United States. By the 2000s, women made up around 57 percent of undergraduates. Women’s decisions became increasingly important, and those choices started to change radically.

The same percentage of men (7 percent) major in the humanities today as in the 1950s, but women’s interest in the humanities has dropped dramatically. More than 15 percent of all degrees that women earned in the 1950s were in the humanities. This peaked at more than 20 percent in the late 1960s, but plunged to below 10 percent by 1980. Currently, slightly more women than men study the humanities. The shift in women’s choices drove the fall in the share of humanities majors.

Why did women turn to other subjects, and what are the implications of those choices? Instead of pursuing degrees in the liberal arts and education, women often chose pre-professional degrees such as business or communications. From the mid-1990s onwards, women have earned more than 50 percent of bachelor’s degrees in pre-professional subjects. There’s still no concrete answer about why this happened, though theories abound. Perhaps it was a consequence of increasing equality that women turned away from degrees that seemed to funnel them into traditionally “feminine” occupations. Perhaps some women hoped that pre-professional degrees would seem more practical and applicable to potential employers and would prove their desirability over male candidates. Perhaps other women expected that pre-professional degrees would generate higher pay after graduation than the humanities.

Within the liberal arts, women have steadily selected social sciences: Nearly 40 percent now major in social sciences. They have hardly flocked to the hard sciences, but have chosen the social sciences as the middle ground since the mid-1970s. Perhaps the social sciences appeared attractive because they still contained the magic word “science.” Or perhaps, they seemed to offer more concrete employment opportunities.

But none of these developments has solved problems of gender equality that remain after students complete higher education.

A study last year by the American Association of University Women found that women still experience a pay gap even after controlling for a range of other factors. One year after graduation, there was a significant difference in pay between a hypothetical man and woman who had graduated from the same university with the same major and chosen to work the same number of hours full time in the same occupation. This hypothetical woman would already earn 7 percent less than the man.

The turn to pre-professional degrees has not always increased women’s visibility in particular sectors either. Let’s take journalism as an example. Journalism and communications constitute about 20 percent of pre-professional degrees earned by women. Since 1977, more women than men have taken college-level journalism courses. But only 36.3 percent of reporters were female in 2013. In 2011, women composed a mere 20 percent of op-eds in traditional news media outlets and a slightly better 33 percent for online media.

I can’t pretend to offer the solution to these wider problems. But I can suggest that more practical degrees are not necessarily the answer.

A choice of a specific major matters less than the skills that students acquire. Polls of employers back me up on this. For nearly 95 percent of employers, a particular college major matters less than “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.”

Some commentators have argued that women should turn to STEM subjects to acquire those capabilities and to secure better pay and professional options. Do we need more women to study tech subjects? Of course. In 2011, women formed only 27 percent of all workers in STEM jobs that generally offered higher than average pay. But others have shown that humanities graduates face no worse unemployment rates than computer scientists or economists.

I teach at an elite institution that hardly represents the experiences of most college students in the United States. But even among Harvard students, I worry that the search for “practicality” in a degree has obscured the search for skills that will equip students for the rest of their personal and professional lives.

Indeed, in a world where we worry less about practicality, the future of the humanities could be very bright. Economist Tyler Cowen has provocatively argued that America will become a “hyper-meritocracy” divided into winners and losers. Winners will be highly self-motivated and possess creative skills that complement computers. For skills-based subjects, the rising importance of creativity is good news and a fillip to those who argue against a relentless focus on field-specific knowledge.

Women’s choices have changed the face of higher education over the past 35 years. A relentless focus on gender won’t resolve funding cuts. But examining the historical reasons why women turned away from the humanities might turn the purported crisis into an opportunity.