...students are “now making the jump to more specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse. Just look at this: in 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.” So things are getting worse? Really? No, not really, not even according to the graphic MSNBC put up at the :13 mark (data source: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). Go ahead, look at it again. I’ll wait right here. Compared to 17.4 percent in1967, yow! We are totally in trouble! … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent. And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now.
I’m sorry, everyone. I know I’ve gone on and on about this in recent years, especially when I have to deal with people who claim that humanities enrollments declined in “recent decades” because of icky things like “theory” and “racial and sexual identity,” or cranks who try to blame that nonexistent enrollment decline on “a virulent strain of Marxist radicalism” (hey, if you thought the virulent Marxism was bad, just wait ‘til we institute Shari’a law!). But I just don’t know of any realm of human endeavor in which a precipitous decline from 1967 to 1987, followed by a couple of decades of stability, counts as breaking news. It’s the equivalent of saying “sales of Sgt. Pepper posters have declined sharply since 1967,”** and trying to pass it off as tonight’s lead story. But for some reason, when it comes to the humanities, it works every time.
The real story should be this: amazingly, remarkably, counterintuitively and bizarrely, humanities majors in the United States, as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, have held steady since about 1990—since the onset of the culture wars, in fact. Despite all the attacks on our Piss Christ this and our queerying that and our deconstructing the Other; despite all the parents and friends and journalists and random passersby telling students they’ll be consigned to a life of selling apples and flipping burgers if they major in English; despite the skyrocketing of tuition and the rise of the predatory private-student-loan industry; despite all this, humanities enrollments have been at or about the 8 percent mark for about twenty years.A last bit of intrigue from Berubé:
Two final points on this. One old one, which I first made in 1999 and then made again in Rhetorical Occasions in 2006: the decline of humanities enrollments was not simply a decline of the humanities.
"… between 1974 and 1985, humanities enrollments did, in fact, decrease by 18.2 percent. But enrollments in the social sciences fell much further, by 33.7 percent, and even in the physical sciences the drop was a considerable 19.4 percent. Where did those students go? To business (a 65.3 percent increase), engineering (up by 92.2 percent), and computer science (a staggering, but altogether historically appropriate, increase of 627.3 percent). Interestingly, between 1986 and 1997 business majors underwent a dramatic decline: in 1986 they accounted for 24 percent of all degrees awarded (237,319 out of 987,823), whereas in 1997 they had slipped to 19.3 percent of all degrees (226,633 out of 1,172,879)."A hypothesis: There is no enrollment or student demand crisis surrounding the humanities. There is instead a crisis of courage, wisdom, and foresight within the academic leadership ranks, a crisis in its willingness to defend the humanities against ignorant and self-serving criticisms.