Monday, November 22, 2010

The humanities in crisis: Never was?

Michael Berubé at CT launches a salvo against the 'humanities in crisis' CW (responding to an interview with Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust by Tamron Hall). I hereby quote at length (and of course invite sage comments):
...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.


  1. > And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now.
    > despite the skyrocketing of tuition and the rise of the predatory private-student-loan industry

    Actually, the stability of enrollment ought to raise as many questions as dropping would.

    Basic economics tells us that as price increases, demand will drop without a countervailing pressure. The second quote tells us that price has increased quite a bit. The first quote tells us demand has *not* dropped.

    How can this be? How are the humanities defying gravity? How can the increase in price not reduce demand? (It certainly does for just about everything else, like milk or houses.) Is there some massive increase in salaries for humanities graduates? Kind of counterintuitive as one would expect STEM fields or business to be garnering any salary increases, and I don't think I've seen any such increases mentioned despite the obvious incentive for any humanities proponent to mention such increases.

    So what's going on? There are cynical explanations for why demand for humanities would be relatively constant and price-insensitive. (A humanities education serves as a status marker, like a peacock's feathers - conspicuous consumption. As such, high pricing may only increase demand, as sometimes happens in luxury goods.) But are they true?

  2. A resounding here, here Michael. What most of us speak about these days with regard to the destruction of the humanities has to do with things that are either not mentioned by Berube, or are not easily quantifiable. On the quantifiable front - many of us are speaking about the decline in federal and private funding. But perhaps he deals with this in other places (I want to be fair here.)

    On the not-easily-quantifiable front, can I begin and end in a blog-post sized space? Part of it is what you say, Michael, an anti-intellectual, flat-footed, pragmatist, business model view on the part of academic administrators. This view, as you and I and others have pointed out is willfully blind to what people in the workforce say they want from undergraduates, which we could supply in abundance if only we weren't asked to constantly justify ourselves by measures that at the very least diminish what we do and at the most, flat-out contradict the practice of the humanities.

    More tellingly, the humanities have changed dramatically from where they were in the time-frame considered by Berube. For example, Classics departments have all but disappeared, and if they were to reappear, they would not be able to instruct as they could because the students simply lack knowledge of foreign languages. Other humanities programs have had to adjust in order to avoid the fate of language programs, classics programs and in some cases philosophy programs: they have had to consistently lower rigor and look to teaching mere skills rather than to teaching students to be well-rounded, well-educated intellectuals.

    Now, part of that is also due to the utter failure of the K-12 system - someone has to teach people how to string together an English sentence. But while we are doing this, we aren't teaching them languages, or close textual analysis, argumentation, logic, critical thinking, imaginative flexibility and awareness of a body of literature across time and cultures that is necessary for having a lively and penetrating understanding of the world.

    So maybe the numbers don't show that we are in decline. But my experience sure does. My own education was far less rich than my father's and I know that my student's education is far less rich than my own. The numbers obscure that the humanities are holding on by selling every last thing we have.

    Hyperbolic, to be sure. But I venture correct in the broad outlines.


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