The State of the Humanities, Part I

This is the first part in a short series on the state and health of the humanities in higher education and American society. 

2013 has seen a remarkable and extended debate over the current status of humanistic education in the United States.  One of the latest additions to this debate was a New York Times article from October 30, which examined Stanford University’s increasingly disproportionate student enrollment in humanities classes against its support for humanities disciplines.  “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students,” the Times reports, underscoring an increasingly urgent question that liberal arts faculty must address: are the humanities dying in American education?

The June release of The Heart of the Matter, a committee report on the state of the humanities and social sciences in America, spawned a swath of commentary that sought to answer this question.   Additional 2013 reports from institutions such as Harvard University provided further depth and possible metrics to judge the success of humanities-based education.  Interestingly, the various articles and essays written by journalists and academics have largely coagulated into two broad sub-debates: what the ultimate goal of a humanistic education should be, and whether or not participation in humanities classes has been in decline over the past few decades. 

In this installment of our series, we’ll take a look at the latter facet and address whether humanistic education is in a death spiral amidst increasing enrollment in STEM and professional degree programs.

A report from Harvard University showed that between 1966 and 2010, the total number of students nationwide majoring in a humanities discipline – including English, philosophy, languages, religion, and general liberal arts; NOT including the social sciences – fell from 14% to 7%.  Harvard’s own case study indicates that among students intending to major in a humanities discipline at the start of freshman year, over 50% graduate in another discipline, generally one falling within the social sciences.  Additional Harvard data reveals a 10% increase in STEM enrollment from 2003 to 2012 and a 10% decrease in female enrollment in humanities majors since the early 1980s. 

The statistics don’t paint a terribly optimistic picture for the current state of humanistic disciplines, though Harvard’s report emphasizes that this isn’t so much a “crisis” as “a challenge and an opportunity.”  But a number of analysts dove further into the data to see the extent to which a decline was actually occurring.  Nate Silver looked at the state of the English major and finds that increased college enrollment numbers account for part of the decline’s face value: 

The relative decline of majors like English is modest when accounting for the increased propensity of Americans to go to college. In fact, the number of new degrees in English is fairly similar to what it has been for most of the last 20 years as a share of the college-age population.

In 2011, 3.1 percent of new bachelor’s degrees were in English language or literature. That figure is down from 4.1 percent 10 years ago, 4.7 percent 20 years ago, and 7.6 percent 40 years ago, in 1971.

But as a proportion of the college-age population, the decline is much less distinct. In 2011, 1.1 out of every 100 21-year-olds graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, down only incrementally from 1.2 in 2001 and 1.3 in 1991. And the percentage of English majors as a share of the population is actually higher than it was in 1981, when only 0.7 out of every 100 21-year-olds received a degree in English.

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Bérubé checked the Digest of Education Statistics, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, and finds the following:

The most recent edition of the digest goes up to 2010. Table 289 lists all degrees by field of study, and it reveals a most curious thing: In 1970 the humanities accounted for 17.1 of all bachelor’s degrees (143,549 out of 839,730). In 2010 the humanities had indeed fallen—to 17.0 of all bachelor’s degrees (280,993 out of 1,650,014).

How can that be? Here’s what the NCES considers to be humanities disciplines: “area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies; English language and literature/letters; foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics; liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; multi/interdisciplinary studies; philosophy and religious studies; theology and religious vocations; and visual and performing arts.” The huge (and also underacknowledged) increase in enrollments in the visual and performing arts—from 30,394 in 1970 to 91,802 in 2010­—is covering for declines in English and foreign languages.

Bérubé also noted that the 1970s were anomalistic when tracking humanities enrollments from the 1940s through today.  The early part of the ‘70s saw 64,000 students enrolled in humanities majors, which dropped to around 34,000 by 1985-1986.  Enrollment today stands at almost 54,000, indicating a nearly 60% increase in humanities majors in the preceding 30 years.  

It becomes clear that the current “state” of the humanities is dependent upon the metrics used to qualify the departments they encompass and the student population they are serving.  This makes it difficult to draw an absolute conclusion on whether the humanities are healthier or worse off than a half-century ago.   While more students are majoring in applicable disciplines overall, general student participation is losing degree share to other areas of study.   Given these contrasting interpretations, it seems Harvard’s assertion that this is not a “crisis” is thankfully correct.  While an ideal situation would see interest trending closer to the halcyon days of the ‘50s, participation in the humanities has not seen an inescapable death spiral.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at the other major question that has been asked in the debate over humanities education: what should a modern humanistic education strive for, and how should that be reflected in its curriculum?

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