People have been proclaiming the imminent extinction of the humanities for decades. A best-selling volume in 1964 warned that a science-focused world left no room for humane pursuits, even as Baby Boomers began to flood the English and history departments of new universities. Allan Bloom warned about academics putting liberal ideology before scholarship in 1987; humanities degrees quickly rose. While coverage of individual academic disciplines like musicology, history, or comparative literature often deals with the substance of scholarship, talk of the humanities in general always seems to focus on their imminent extinction. In 2010, Wayne Bivens-Tatum provided a useful walk through the first 50 years of the humanities crisis, until about 1980. Because of this long history, I’ve always been skeptical of claims that the humanities are in retreat.
But something different has been happening with the humanities since the 2008 financial crisis. Five years ago, I argued that the humanities were still near long-term norms in their number of majors. But since then, I’ve been watching the numbers from the Department of Education, and every year, things look worse. Almost every humanities field has seen a rapid drop in majors: History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s. Student majors have dropped, rapidly, at a variety of types of institutions. Declines have hit almost every field in the humanities (with one interesting exception) and related social sciences, they have not stabilized with the economic recovery, and they appear to reflect a new set of student priorities, which are being formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom.