Friday, June 07, 2013

Never that central, not really in crisis

A friend alerted me to this fascinating post arguing not only that the latest narrative of decline for the humanities is excessive and alarmist (there's no evidence that the past decade has seen a steep drop-off in the percentage of college students majoring in the humanities), but that there was never a period in American life where humanities majors accounted for more than a tiny percentage of the adult population.

Benjamin Schmidt, a graduate student at Princeton, runs the numbers and finds several things. First, the mid-to-late 1960s, when somewhere between 15 and 20% of all college students majored in the humanities, were a brief and anomalous blip: the best numbers from the previous decades suggest that about 10% of college students majored in the humanities in the 1940s and 1950s, compared with about 8% today--and of course, in the middle of the 20th century, vastly fewer Americans went to college and there were vastly fewer subjects available to major in. Second, there has never been a time when humanities majors accounted for more than about 4% of the entire adult population--compared with about 3% today.

At least as interesting as the data are Schmidt's reflections on why so many people are so invested in a narrative of decline for the humanities. He suggests that it fulfills different needs for different groups: a belief in the prior-centrality of the humanities allows (a) humanists themselves to argue that their disciplines once were and still should be at the core of both university education and public life; (b) conservative critics of the academy to claim that misguided academics in thrall to something (multiculturalism! French theory!) destroyed the humanities; (c) business-oriented pragmatists to dismiss the humanities as outdated and irrelevant to the modern world.

He points out that, in fact, the great period of recovery for humanities majors (after the crash in the 1970s) came in the late 1980s and early 1990s--"in other words, the heart of the culture wars, perhaps the only period that everyone agrees was ruinous to the humanities."

Read the post and see what you think. Here's the big question I'm left with: what would it mean for us not to believe that the humanities are in crisis? How might we teach differently, research differently, or approach broader questions of educational policy differently?



Comrade Physioprof said...

Another benefit to seeing a "crisis"--which is what many scientists claim about federal science funding right now--is that those who get shelled out of the field can view it as something completely out of their control: they are just victims of a crisis.

Flavia said...


That too. Of course, it's hard to disentangle the genuine crises the academy is facing--state and federal disinvestment from higher education; the radical shortage of permanent, full-time jobs; inequitable student access to and preparation for college--from the manufactured or overblown ones.

But I guess that's an important challenge (for me as well as for anyone): to try to focus on the real crises rather than the ones that merely feed into a sense of aggrieved self-righteousness or luxurious despair.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Very interesting, especially since I'm a member of a department that's very much into the business of trying to reverse the decline. At least in my little corner of the world (R2 trying to become an R1), part of the picture is that tenure-track faculty have, over the last decade-plus, been more or less freed from teaching core classes, and -- thanks to a combination of declining number of majors, success in getting additional tenure lines (mostly by adding specialities/areas of study), and general cost-cutting making it more likely that lightly-enrolled classes will be canceled -- want to believe that their re-entry into said classes (especially the comp ones) is temporary. I'd say that many (though by no means all) of those faculty members are very reluctant to recognize that, in the eyes of many of their colleagues outside the department (and many non-TT faculty *within* the department -- i.e. those of us who teach the majority of the core classes, on 4/4 full-time or part-time/adjunct schedules), one of the major functions of the department is to help our students develop not so much specific disciplinary knowledge, as skills they will use in other majors, and/or in the work world. I'm pretty comfortable with that, and don't see it as in conflict with a decent respect for disciplinary skills and concerns (I'm an English lit. Ph.D., not a Comp/Rhet. one, and I still publish in my field), any more than people I meet from more teaching-oriented schools do, but being able to teach entirely in the major, and seeing that work as the primary purpose of the department, seems to be very important to some of my colleagues.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Hmm. . .clauses don't quite line up there. My point was that the reentry into core (esp. comp.) classes is due to a number of factors, but my colleagues very much want to believe it is/make it temporary by attracting new majors (who will fill classes in the major).

Emily said...

I'd be curious to know about how humanities courses have fared in general education requirements -- are students majoring in things outside of the humanities required to take multiple courses within the humanities to cover gen ed requirements?

Also ... I wonder what impact the focus on numbers has on this: administrators insisting that a department must have X number of majors in order to create a new line for the department. Thus, even though courses are filling, they're filling with non-majors. So ... if you're not graduating majors, you don't need more lines. That seems to be what's been happening with a number of classics and modern languages programs: if you're not graduating a lot of majors, you must not be vital.

That might be a little scattered. But that post has some interesting stuff to think about.

Flavia said...


I don't know the specifics in your department, but I agree that it's short-sighted for core faculty to act as if the only courses worth teaching are the upper-division ones and/or the ones that serve majors. For one thing, how do you recruit new majors if not through Gen Ed courses or lower-division courses open to interested non-majors without the relevant pre-reqs?

Ideally the non-tenure-line faculty teaching those courses are awesome, talented, dedicated teachers and scholars who do a great job of recruiting--but even when this is the case, they're often not able to forge long-term relationships with the students who love them (if they're not teaching upper-division classes; if they leave for a better job; if they don't have office space). Moreover (and this partly speaks to Emily's point as well), at least at my institution, we're able to use the fact that we teach a ton of Gen Eds as a reason to ask for more TT lines.

Personally, I think any department that thinks its TT faculty shouldn't ever teach gen ed or lower-level classes is ultimately destroying itself and its reason for existing.

Flavia said...


That's an interesting point. As I mentioned above, my department has felt that there are strategic reasons to serve the Gen Ed program (we decided to keep Composition within the English Department, for example, for this reason--and though most of our comp sections are still taught by contingent faculty, we agreed that the rest of us still needed to be participating--usually to the tune of one comp section a year). But you're right that if all a department is doing is offering lower-level courses, that can starve it of lines, too. It's certainly true of our foreign language department.

On the other hand (and this gets back to Cassandra's point about the importance of serving non-majors), I'd be thrilled to have more talented non-majors in my classes. Our majors have been declining lately even as the college's admission's standards keep rising, which in some ways is upsetting. But if that means my Shakespeare classes have more smart Psych majors (or whatever) who really liked English in high school and just want to take the class for fun? That's still a good sign for the intellectual health of the college as a whole. Indeed maybe it's a better one.

Anastasia said...

I'm in and near a lot of conversations about decline in the humanities in higher ed and those conversations usually aren't about numbers of majors. They're about general education classes and the quality thereof--a class heavy on theory or one that questions the validity of the canon rather than simply teaching the canon. I don't know that I'm sold on that line of argument completely but there is something to it in the sense that I saw Historiann (I think) arguing that we should abandon the large scale surveys altogether in favor of microhistories of some sort. That's exactly the kind of move the conservative cultural critics are anxious about. I don't know that they're right but I don't know that they're wrong. I also don't think they're interested in creating a lot of humanities majors.

Withywindle said...

We conservatives contain multitudes ... it is true that my interest in preserving the invisible church of the humanities overlaps imperfectly with desiring an increase in humanities majors. But I don't claim to speak for any conservatives but myself.

Withywindle said...

Expanding a little: on the one hand, I do think the humanities are essential to teaching people how to be free citizens, rather than cogs in an administrative state. I also think that current humanities majors--and humanities professors--overwhelmingly favor politics that forward the administrative state at the expense of liberty. Trahison des clercs and all that, although it may be that the rise of the administrative state has hollowed out the humanistic spirit, rather than a collapse of the humanistic spirit leading to the rise of the administrative state. One natural response to this state of affairs, which many of my fellow conservatives indeed do follow, is to say that liberty can best, or only, be preserved by a radical surgery of trahisoniste humanities majors. I cannot agree with them--especially since their spirit is more fewer is better than fewer but better. No humanities, no freedom; bad humanists--well, there's still a chance that freedom will return. But then what about the third category?--people with the humanist credential, but without even the minimum humanist skills? I don't want to "support the humanities" if that means "blanket support to graduate semi- or il-literate humanities majors so as to preserve the numbers of tenured humanities professors." That doesn't seem worth the candle.

So, ambivalently: "Thou shalt not kill, but do not strive / Officiously to keep alive." But I just don't see a way toward the sort of thriving humanities that I value. This conservative, at any rate, doesn't know what he can propose that will make things better; so I just drift passively as things get worse.

This is all tangential to Flavia's original post, for which I hope she'll forgive me; but I did want to respond to Anastasia's brief comment about conservatives.

Tony Grafton said...

Well, here's a thought. Maybe, instead of talking and writing in general terms about the humanities, we could talk about the absolutely AMAZING, righteous, astonishing work that our students actually do? You know: no names, no genders, privacy maintained, we could talk about particular papers and class discussions that have rocked our worlds? Because I'm betting I'm very, very far from the only humanist who reads this and similar blogs who has this experience again and again, year in and year out. It would be really wonderful to hear about others' comparable joys--and sorrows, we all get them too--and compare. That's a discussion that would transcend politics and polemics and tap our common love for our crafts and the kids in our advanced classes who get excited by them and the kids in our gen ed classes whose faces are illuminated when they crack something hard . . . Wouldn't it? Just sayin' . . .

Withywindle said...

I'd have said Flavia does a lot of that.