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!