The State of the Humanities

Susan at Pages Turned recently linked to a pessimistic New York Times article by Patricia Cohen about the state of humanities education in the United States. The implication is that people think studying things like history and art and literature is impractical at the best of times, and downright foolish at times like these. The article presents ominous portends and anticipates a widespread collapse of humanities departments, going so far as to suggest that there is an atmosphere of panic among faculty.

To bring the point home, the article includes a graph from the Humanities Indicators Prototype (incorrectly identified as the Humanities Indicators Project, though I don’t blame them!). The graph shows precipitous downward trends in the percentage of Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees in the humanities since 1966. Well, whoa there cowgirl. There has been a great expansion in educational options in the last 40 years, and so a percentage of total degrees doesn’t really tell you much. I perused the voluminous Humanities Indicators Prototype (who came up with that name?) website and as it turns out the humanities are in much better shape than that one graph would suggest.

First of all, fluctuations in the numbers and percentages of students in the humanities seem to have more to do with cultural and academic trends than economic considerations. This is according to a spinoff essay, “Taking the Pulse of the Humanities,” based on the HIP data. One big change was the entry of large numbers of women into higher education. At first they gravitated to subjects that could lead to female-friendly careers such as teaching, but as the women’s movement progressed, they branched out into science, business, and other male-dominated fields. Another change was the expansion of educational offerings, especially in technical fields and business administration. There are simply many more choices now.

These and other factors created a big boom in the humanities around 1970 and then a crash during the 80’s, but things have stabilized since then. In fact, the actual number of students completing degrees in the humanities has been pretty stable since 1990, and has been climbing steadily since 1997 for undergrads. The more “selective” liberal arts colleges and universities have experienced the most growth, so the humanities are obviously still appealing to the best and brightest. This is hardly cause for despair.

There are other hopeful indicators too. A part of the HIP report on public attitudes toward art and literature shows very positive attitudes towards the humanities. In particular, the people surveyed were very supportive of teaching the classics, and felt that great literature was universal and not to be defined or limited by ethnicity or other factors. Interestingly, the percentage of people who would favour removing books from libraries for objectionable content has declined significantly, the greatest decline being for books with homosexual content. The book banners are on their way out. And it seems that there is more respect for modern art that you might think. Nearly 70% of respondents disagreed with a statement that modern art looks like a child could do it.

So it appears that Americans have not lost their interest in the humanities, and their strong respect for both the classics and modern art is very encouraging. Most importantly, students are still flocking to history, English, and philosophy classes. Now, if we can only get them interested in ancient Greek and Latin too!


9 comments on “The State of the Humanities

  1. びっくり says:

    I think installation art is responsible for the number of respondents who disagree with the statement that modern art looks like a child could do it. After all, what child could construct a 40 ton welded structure? 😉
    Although, I studied Chemical Engineering, I prided myself in seeking a variety of experiences, even though it required five years of intense study. Classics, Music, Art, Philosophy, Sociology, English (poetry and short story writing), History, German, Geology, Biology, and a few other 'unnecessary' disciplines found their way into my schedule.
    My father – a Civil/Structural Engineer – was always baffled at my choices, regardless of my having an explanation for each class I chose.

  2. Grad says:

    When I was in high school (when dinosaurs still roamed) all seniors were required to take 2 semesters in Humanities. I loved it and, unlike a lot of other subjects, have retained much that I learned. We were also required to take 4 years of Latin, and our senior year was devoted to translating Caesar's Gallic Wars. I'm encouraged to learn that the current climate might not be all that grim for the Humanities.

  3. joe fischer says:

    I find some modern art to be what a child WOULD create if he/she were capable. In other words, it's not that they could do it, but it is the sort of thing they love to look at. I don't know what that means.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Good point, Bikkuri! 😉 You did well to get a well-rounded education. My schedule was packed with a double major so I never had the opportunity to browse. I hope I'm making up for it now!
    Grad, sounds wonderful. I did get a semester (or possibly two) of Latin in high school, but it was optional. I did translate a small bit of Caesar but I don't remember anything about except for being surprised that I could translate it!
    Joe, what can I say but, go Vikes! (My alma mater's teams are also Vikes. 😉

  5. wil says:

    The HIP site is quite interesting. Thanks for the link!
    It seems every so often the humanities feel the need to justify themselves…to passionately defend themselves from a perceived attack, as if we were in eminent danger of becoming a society of technicians, watching the study of literature, languages, history, philosophy, et al., fade into the sunset. Seems sort of silly to me.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Indeed. We've been trying to figure out what it means to be human for thousands of years and I don't think we'll be giving up any time soon!

  7. I think the media tends to blow things out of proportion sometimes. And statistics can be skewed. Surely it's a more exciting story to say the state of humanities is declining and is on its way out than saying everything's ok. My library/university just opened a satellite library (to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars–more than they expected to spend–not good in a recession–but that's another story entirely) in an art gallery in my city's downtown. It's totally high tech and much talked about. I think the arts are healthy and well. As you've written, there's always more to the story than what's in the headlines.

  8. Sylvia says:

    You're right, reporters are always looking for a sensational “hook” and don't always present the whole complexity of a situation. These days news staff have been so cut back that they probably don't have time to read whole reports. I imagine they just have time to glance at the executive summary, get a few reactions over the phone, and presto they have their article. The precipitous decline in news-gathering is a far more important story than the (non) decline in the humanities!

  9. Stefanie says:

    The article was getting emailed around the university library system where I work last week. It is rather alarmist and lacking in a full perspective of what is really going on as you so nicely proved Sylvia. When I was in grad school for English back in the late 80s the faculty were moaning about the impending end of English departments. I would love to learn Greek and Latin and the university I work at offers both. Now if I didn't have library school to attend to…

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