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 destroyed the humanities; (c) business-oriented pragmatists to dismiss the humanities as outdated and irrelevant to the modern world.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?