The internet moves at such a rapid pace these days that I can read and comment on a piece in the Altantic less than four months after it first appears. Having fixed my RSS reader’s link to Ben Schmidt’s blog (and yes, remarks about my RSS reader are going to be a fixture on my microblog) I now catch wind at last of his truly marvelous essay on the crisis in humanities majors from August, building on a less formal and somewhat more pungent blog post from July. Ben’s series on the issue continued more recently with a piece for the AHA magazine, The History BA since the Great Recession. This last reveals that for once history may be the new humanities crisis champs, since they have seen the largest proportional drop in majors nationally since 2011. Of course they had further to fall than long-term crisis heavyweight English; English degrees were already on the decline, having made less of a rebound from their previous trough than other humanities fields. Neither English nor history nor any of the other long-standing humanities fields have hit bottom by any means; Ben shows that the rate of decline may just be beginning to decrease, but this will be small consolation to those of us who work in these fields.
Characteristically for Ben, these are all beautifully executed pieces of reasoning with data. The Atlantic essay is also gorgeously presented (and comes with a reproduction repository!). I particularly liked, too, the idea of counting BA degrees as a share of the 23-year-old population, which avoids what is so misleading about the “share of degrees” measure most people focus on to talk about a humanities crisis, namely, that the college-age and college-going populations are both still growing. The news for humanities majors is bad, however, whatever measure you follow, even raw degree numbers.
Ben has a reasonable discussion of how to interpret this evidence. The onset of the Great Recession really is a turning point, and it looks to be the only explanatory factor with the right timing and the right scale (that is, national, across all institution types and populations). Ben quite carefully speaks of “student priorities…formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom.” Naturally the formation of such priorities does not take place in a vacuum, and it is good to remember that what students choose is not necessarily what they would choose if they felt unconstrained—and if they knew all there was to be known about what they were choosing. The choices are not particularly rational in terms of expected future earnings, but they probably do give evidence of a widespread pressure to make a “practical” choice, where this is understood to mean choosing a preprofessional, technical, or scientific major.
As usual my feeling is that “defending the humanities” is a terrible response to this situation (and not one that Ben advocates either). Free college for all would be a better one. Or—as I also always say—refunding public K–12 education.
It is not just the humanities that are losing students, and we see again the emergence of cleavages in the system of higher education that differ from the pre-WWII tripartion into humanities, sciences, and social sciences. “Fields in closer proximity to the humanities,” says Ben, have also lost majors (absolutely and by share): anthropology, sociology, political science… The field of communication has not declined in the same way; neither has psychology (where it is easy to imagine preprofessional possibilities). It’s tempting, but probably English-centric, to remark that the losers are all fields in which students read and write a lot.
Finally, however things look from the student and faculty positions, it’s worth remembering that the “crisis” in the humanities is likely no such thing from the position of ruling elites and the people who manage universities for them. To them it must look like an improvement, from the perspective of short-term economic development, in the mixture of human capital being produced by higher education. It is also indisputably a chance to dispense with some more tenure lines in disciplines whose only contribution to institutional revenue is teaching—and which tend to produce the most annoying gadflies on the faculty to boot. Even if administrators understood that humanities tuition dollars actually subsidize the sciences, they would reason that they could rake in those same tuition dollars on the backs of adjuncts and NTTs, especially if all those enrollments are people doing gen-ed requirements rather than majors.