Monday, October 4, 2010

The humanities in decline: Are we overreacting?

In the wake of our Nussbaum series, I found these discussions by W. Robert Connor, Cheryl Ching, and Ricard Greenwald of why the humanities endure (part I, part II) an interesting counterweight to Nussbaum's book. These authors certainly make the humanities out to be far healthier than Nussbaum does and imply that we humanists might be succumbing to a popular cultural trope: the declinist narrative.

Connor and Ching challenge the claim that the humanities (at least at the university level) are in decline. Yes, they are smaller relative to other disciplines, but that's due to an explosion in students studying fields like business. The humanities defy the declinist narrative:

So runs the widespread narrative of decline and fall. Everyone has an anecdote or two to support this story, but does it hold in general and can we learn something from a closer examination of the facts? 

Degrees awarded in English dropped from a high of 64,627 in 1970-71 to half that number in the early 1980s, before rising to 55,000 in the early 1990s and staying at that level since then. The social sciences and history were hit with a similar decline in majors in 1970s and 1980s, but then recovered nicely in the years since then and now have more than they did in 1970. The numbers of foreign language, philosophy, religious studies, and area studies majors have been stable since 1970. IPEDS data pick up where the Humanities Indicator Project leaves off and tell that in 2008 and 2009, the number of students who graduated with bachelor's degrees in English, foreign language and literatures, history, and philosophy and religion have remained at the same level.
What’s surprising about this bird’s-eye view of undergraduate education is not the increase in the number of majors in programs that should lead directly to a job after graduation, but that the number of degrees earned in the humanities and related fields have not been adversely affected by the financial troubles that have come and gone over the last two decades.
Mark Twain once remarked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The liberal arts disciplines, it seems, can say the same thing. The on-the-ground stories back up the statistics and reinforce the idea that the liberal arts are not dying, despite the soft job market and the recent recession. Majors are steady, enrollments are up in particular fields, and students -- and institutions -- aren’t turning their backs on disciplines that don’t have obvious utility for the workplace. The liberal arts seem to have a particular endurance and resilience, even when we expect them to decline and fall.
For his part, Greenwald traces the resilience of the humanities not to their contribution to democracy (Nussbaum's cherished cause), but to their distinctive utility in a new skills-based economy where volatility and job insecurity is the norm.
Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs.

Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated. But just look at higher education's use of adjuncts and you see the trend. The fastest-growing sector of this shift is in the formally white-collar world our students aspire to. This number has been steadily rising and is projected to continue its upward climb unchanged. We are living in a world where 9:00-5:00 jobs are declining, careers with one company over a lifetime are uncommon, and economic risk has shifted from large institutions to individuals. Our students will know a world that is much more unstable and fluid than the one of a mere generation ago.
We have known for many years that younger workers (i.e., recent college graduates) move from firm to firm, job to job and even career to career during their lifetime. What we are seeing now, however, is different. And for as many Americans, they are hustling from gig to gig, too. These workers, many our former students, may never know economic security, but they may know success. For many of the new-economy workers, success is measured by more than just money, as freedom, flexibility and creativity count too.

If this is the new economy our students are going to inherit, we as college and university administrators, faculty and staff need to take stock of the programs we offer (curricular as well as extracurricular) to ensure that we serve our students' needs and set them on a successful course for the future. The skills they will need may be different from those of their predecessors.
The surprise, according to Greenwald? The old fashioned humanities provide the education people need to succeed in this new economy:
We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.
Greenwald boldly predicts a renaissance for the humanities, if only defenders of the humanities will  put aside their defensiveness and embrace this economic role for the humanities:

For liberal arts educators, this economic shift creates a useful moment to step out of the shadows. We no longer need to be defensive because what we have to offer is now more visibly useful in the world. Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.
It will not be easy to explain to future students and their parents that a liberal arts degree may not lead to a particular “job” per se, because jobs in the traditional sense are disappearing. But, we can make a better case about how a liberal arts education leads to both a meaningful life and a successful career.
Obviously, the message from these authors is a resoundingly positive one, tempered with a kind of call to arms: We need not trumpet the grand political or ethical significance of the humanities, thereby swimming against the pragmatic tide of our educational culture. We can instead surf that tide and point out how it's the old 'vocational' model of education that serves our students ill.

So the humanities: In decline -- or basically fit and posed for a comeback? What say you?



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Shouldn't the humanities, as taught in college classrooms, be the main place where citizens are molded and given guidance today, since families are in shambles and religion doesn't matter anymore? I think that young people need to be preached to, need to encounter some kind of righteousness, and find next to none of it in humanities classes.

    I also think that 'success' in the humanities should be evaluated by how often students are bored in class, not by how well humanists can rationalize their existence in a college system where 'studying business' is far more important.

    I enjoy your content, and I run a fledgling blog dealing with much the same topics, if you're interested.

  3. As a sociologist of the family, I am very familiar with the declinist narrative.

    The fact is that focusing on percentages in a context where more options have become available leads to wrong conclusions.

  4. The article agrees with my experience, for that that is worth. I am really skeptical that students who have taken highly vocational courses of study are getting an education attuned to that important part of our nature, which is to be what Elijah Millgram calls "serial hyperspecializers."

  5. I think that one question that needs to be asked is what effect 'for-profit' schools are having in this discussion. I read recently that @ 9% of college students are going to for-profit schools. Having taught at two for-profit schools, I can attest to the fact that the humanities are being watered down in those institutions. At one, the only philosophy course offered is Philosophy of Ethics and at the other ethics is subsumed into legal issues courses, for example Health Care Law and Ethics where ethics is treated in a legalistic, rule compliance framework.

    As I suggested in another thread, I think that there is a risk that Obama's recent educational push is going to accelerate the push for more technical, scientific, and mathematical educational related courses and majors at the expense of those that do not necessarily feed the economic system. While it may be the case that the CEO's of Fortune 500 organizations do not have these types of degrees, but we should remember that they make up only a very small percentage of the work force. If one has been following some of the reports on Leiter Report and elsewhere, it is clear that many institutions are starting to ask for departments to justify their existence based on their cost versus number of majors/minors as well as courses taught. The Humanties might be 'healthy' now, but what does the future hold if monies are going to be directed towards improving educational offerings in math, science, and technology. Where do we think that money is going to come from? The most efficient way to generate this money to to reduce those departments that are not producing major/minors and putting it into those departments that are earmarked as those that are needed for future economic growth, competitiveness, and viability. If that means that less courses in the Humanities will be offered that is offset by the increase in courses in other areas. We need to remember that traditional colleges/universities are now competing for students with 'for-profit colleges/universities, not to mention Community Colleges where @ 43% of undergraduate students are receiving part, if not all, their college education.

  6. Not every citizen even goes to college, so it seems dangerous to make one segment of the college curriculum the basis of civic education. Not only that, but I don't see how we are more successful the more we bore our students. That's a pretty outrageous claim. I share the idea that Humanities classes should be more than mere entertainment, but judging our success by our dullness!

  7. Jonathon raises a very good point. I am sure this stat is different now (but probably not by much), but back @ 1990 if a person got a BA/BS degree he or she would be 1 of @1% of the world's population that has a college education. This further demonstrates that critical thinking skills must be developed prior to college - probably prior to high school. There must be studies out there somewhere that show if there is a correlation between developed critical thinking skills and high school graduation rates.


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