How We Talk About the Humanities

The humanities — defined as the “big four” of English, languages, philosophy, and history —  are in decline. Intellectuals and the public have been warning about this shift for decades and have pushed a wide variety of explanations for the decline: ballooning student debt, the perception of poor job prospects, and an apparent liberal bias in humanities classes. The problem with all these narratives is that they are generally self-serving, and tailor-made to confirm the prior beliefs of whomever is making them. What is really happening is a decades-old shift to a far more careerist view of education, with recent economic disasters acting as fuel for the fire. Students are deserting the humanities because the division no longer fits into the role our culture assigns to education.

No matter how dubious the reasons given are, the decline is real. In 1970, 14 percent of degrees were given in the humanities. The number today is halved, at seven percent. The humanities have been declared to be in crisis since at least the 1950s, but actually saw growth from the mid-fifties to the early seventies, and enrollments were steady from about 1985 to 2008. The Great Recession, however, kicked off a serious and sustained decline in majors and course enrollment. Even the absolute number of course majors in the humanities is lower than it was four years ago.

Swatties just learning of this drop may think it’s just something that happens to other schools. After all, Swarthmore has a long history of intellectual rigor and commitment to the liberal arts. The humanities have always been at the core of the liberal arts. But for all the talk about academic ideals, Swarthmore and its peer schools are some of the main sources of this decline. “Elite” — those ranked in the U.S. News and World Report top thirty — liberal arts colleges have seen the humanities drop from about a third of all majors to under a quarter, and the decline is just as steep at elite research universities.

So why are people giving up Emerson for electrical engineering? Historian Benjamin Schmidt has done the most work on the subject, and provides most of the statistics in this article. He says that the main driver is a changed perception of the job market. After the economic crash of 2008 and the achingly slow recovery, students started leaving the humanities en masse for more “practical” S.T.E.M. fields. At the top 30 universities, computer science has as many majors as history, English, religion, philosophy, linguistics, and area studies combined. The fastest growing majors are all in S.T.E.M., or business and economics. Fear of student debt, high housing prices in major cities, and slow economic growth have caused students to leave philosophy seminars and enter into engineering classes, from diagramming Greek verbs to drawing supply-and-demand graphs.

Setting aside concerns about the humanities themselves, student fears of unemployment are basically unfounded. Schmidt’s data is somewhat mixed, but differences in income and employment between S.T.E.M. and non-S.T.E.M. majors tend to fall within the margin of error. In fact, humanities majors under 35 have been found to have higher employment than life science and social science majors. At elite colleges, the fear of impractical degrees is even more unfounded. It’s clear that what you study in college is hardly relevant to your future employment. Most of what American college students learn will be completely forgotten within ten years, according to research done by Bryan Kaplan at George Mason University. Instead, colleges and universities act as credentialing institutions, with a degree as a certificate of general intelligence. And a diploma from an elite college is, of course, the best kind of credential you can have.

Of course, the fact that students feel so pressured to get a “practical” degree means that an important battle has already been lost. Until 1970, a large majority of students polled responded that the primary purpose of a college education was to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” But as the economy slowed down and the cultural shifts of the 1960s became entrenched, that response declined. Today, a majority of students say that education is best for “making more money.”

There are many reasons for this careerist shift. One of the most important is the decision by post-war policymakers to start treating colleges as launching pads for economic productivity (they are) and social mobility (they aren’t). Large research universities ballooned and technical degrees spread. Eventually, the focus on “useful,” or economically productive jobs trickled down to high schools, with the expansion of S.T.E.M. and “pre-college” programs. Instead of creating citizens or intellectuals, schools were tools of economic policy. Preparing students for the “modern” or “knowledge” economy is the main way we talk about high school now, and that mindset is carried into college.

So students now are formed in a culture of ceaseless competition and striving for success, leading them to flock to what they perceive are the safest degrees. Why, then, is the decline in humanities steeper at the top colleges? It might have something to do with the fact that expectations for high-achieving students are higher than ever. Funneled through SAT prep classes, club sports teams, and the hellish circus of the college admissions process, their educational experience orients them towards external, objective concerns: grades, scores, internships, and scholarships. And the competition is greater the higher you rise.

But these objective concerns are exactly the inverse of what humanities deal with. Broadly speaking, the humanities are concerned with the interiority of the individual: character, moral choices, values, aesthetics, those attributes that make up what could be called the soul. David Brooks often writes about the difference between “resume” and “eulogy” traits —  what an employer will read on your resume versus what will be heard at your funeral. The humanities are concerned with the latter. To study the humanities is to learn how to be human. It’s in the name, after all.

This focus is fundamentally subversive of “practical education.” W.H. Auden, who taught at Swarthmore for over a decade, warned of technical education eliminating the sense of “vocation”, of  having a passion that you were willing to follow your whole life. He was not saying that your vocation had to be for the humanities, but that your education had to give you the tools to discern it.  

Without the humanities, all that education does is form students who do what other people think is best —  “men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs,” as Wesleyan president Michael Roth writes. They’re probably going to be a lot more boring, as well.

The only solution I see going forward is for humanities to recover or create an evangelistic, confident spirit. It would be helpful for administrators to act like they believe in their historical mission too. Swarthmore hiring new computer science professors as they attempt to push out the Classical Hebrew program does not exactly signal institutional confidence.

But far more importantly, the case needs to be made that the humanities are important to our lives; that they’re not only for fun or intellectual exercise. It’s not that this doesn’t ever happen. I still think about a lecture Professor Craig Williamson gave about how the final confrontation with the dragon in Beowulf is like the confrontation with death that we will all face — a deep insight that challenges the priorities of the technocratic, meritocratic culture that dominates so much of American life. This challenge can only come from the humanities. If we can articulate a mission of discovery and moral growth and a certainty that in the humanities, we are playing for stakes, then maybe students will start to return.

One comment

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    Spencer Jones, ‘13 says:

    Thanks for this. I’m a high school History and English teacher and I’ve coached a few novice teachers who want to be History teachers straight out of undergrad. I’ve noticed that the way they analyze literature and primary sources seems rooted in a technical, quantitivative, non-Humanities way of thinking. They are less skilled at teaching children how to grapple with human irony, “irrationality,” and unpredictability, and have little regard for the discipline as one that can help young people build empathy skills. It concerns me.

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