Maybe the Real Crisis in the Humanities Is All These Articles about a Crisis in the Humanities

Last week the New York Times published an article headlined, “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” The headline is odd not only because colleges aren’t collective brains and thus can’t “worry” (individuals within them can) but also because the article’s details don’t add up to a picture of “fad[ing] interest” in the humanities at all, but, rather, of lavish investments in the humanities by those institutions that have enormous endowments, whether Princeton’s summer program for high school students or Stanford’s “manicured quads,” contrasted with collapsing public subsidy for state schools like Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, where several humanities departments are slated for closure. So, mostly what we learn from this article is that higher education in America is deeply stratified and increasingly a highly inequitable lottery system, which is certainly troubling but which we also already knew and which is not a phenomenon limited to the humanities. 

Moreover, as many knowledgeable readers rushed to point out on blogs and Twitter, and contrary to the headline’s declaration, “interest … in the humanities” is not actually “fad[ing]” among college students by any straightforward metric. As the Times itself pointed out a few months ago, “the big plunge in humanities majors in fact came in the 1970s, following an anomalous boom in the 1960s,” and insofar as there has been a more recent shift away from humanities majors, it’s mainly been at elite institutions. Indeed, insofar as this most recent Times piece offered any good evidence for its claims, it’s limited to extremely selective schools like Harvard, which, it notes, has seen a “20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last decade.”

Such internal trends within atypical colleges may well be interesting and they may tell us something about the culture, but I don’t think that the something they tell us about is the place of the humanities in that culture. Here are a few hypotheses: maybe these shifts are a reflection of the insanely careerist type of student that one now must be to get into a school like Harvard, or maybe they are fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, which eliminated whole chunks of the entry-level investment bank jobs that used to make curricular choices at elite schools relatively inconsequential for students most concerned with making money. Perhaps the days are simply behind us when English majors at Harvard could waltz into analyst gigs at Goldman Sachs, as documented by anthropologist Karen Ho, and recent shifts at Ivy-type schools indicate nothing more than a convergence towards the balance between more exploratory and more preprofessional majors that has long already been the norm at most colleges. I don’t know if these explanations hold up, but something on their level of granularity would be more convincing to me than the Times‘s image of a generalized generational loss of interest in books.

But none of this is to say that this most recent Times piece, and others of its ilk, don’t raise fascinating questions. As anyone who’s ever parsed a Puritan jeremiad in an English class will know, one thing you learn in humanities courses is that narratives of crisis usually tell us more about the narrator than about the thing that is putatively in decline. So, the question raised for me by the article is not whether or why “interest [is] fad[ing] in the humanities,” because first, I don’t entirely know what that even means or how you would measure it, and second, by the piece’s chosen measure of college student enrollment figures it isn’t. It’s why the Times and other leading media outlets seem so invested in telling their readers a story of humanities in decline.

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