July 1, 2013
By Michael Bérubé
In recent years, enrollments in the humanities have plummeted. The evidence is everywhere: Last month, in The New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg noted «the recent shift away from the humanities» in an essay titled «The Decline and Fall of the English Major.» In his 2009 American Scholar essay, «The Decline of the English Department,» William M. Chace noted that English accounted for 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in 1970-71, but only 3.9 percent in 2003-4. «If nothing is done to put an end to the process of disintegration, the numbers will continue in a steady downward spiral,» he warned. A few weeks ago in these pages, Mark Bauerlein cited similar numbers, concluding, «English has gone from a major unit in the university to a minor one.» In November 2010, the MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall remarked with alarm that «students wanting to take up majors like art history and literature are now making the jump to more-specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse.» A chart appeared on-screen. «Just look at this,» she said. «In 2007 just 8 percent of bachelor’s degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.» In 1966 that figure had been 17.4 percent.
So you can understand why tenure-track jobs are disappearing and funds are drying up for the humanities: Undergraduates have voted with their feet. Humanities professors have killed interest in their own disciplines, and students have responded accordingly. As David Brooks recently wrote in The Times, «The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. … To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.»
There’s only one problem with those insistent accounts of the decline of the humanities in undergraduate education: They are wrong. Factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong.
I have been trying to point this out for years, using «numbers» and «arithmetic,» but it appears that the decline in humanities enrollments is universally acknowledged. Everyone simply knows that it has happened, just as everyone knows about that feminist who burned her bra while spitting on the soldier returning from Vietnam.
Now, as it happens, there was a decline in bachelor’s degrees in English, just as there was a drop-off in humanities enrollments more generally. But it happened almost entirely between 1970 and 1980. It is old news. Students are not «now making the jump» to other fields, and it is not «getting worse.» It is not a «recent shift.» There is no «steady downward spiral.» It is more like the sales of Beatles records—huge in the 60s, then dropping off sharply in the 70s.
And why does that matter? Because many of the accounts of the decline of the humanities are tendentious. Even when they are couched as defenses of study in the humanities, as Brooks’s column was, they are attacks on current practices in the humanities—like the study of race, class, gender, and other boring things. Or the rise of «theory.» Or the study of popular culture. Or the preponderance of jargon. Or the fragmentation of the curriculum. Or my colleague down the hall, whose work I never liked and who is probably undermining the English major as I type.
But most of the things blamed for the decline in enrollments happened after the decline in enrollments had stopped. Theory, race/gender/class/sexuality, jargon, popular culture … those things were hard to find in humanities departments in the 1970s. They became part of the fabric of the material in our end of campus in the 1980s and 1990s.
And a funny thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s: Enrollments crept back up a bit. Weirdly, no one at the time seemed to have taken any solace in this. All through those decades, people kept churning out essays about the decline and fall of English and the humanities. The essays all started the same way: «In 1970 we were the biggest thing on campus,» they insisted. «We earned our swagger. Everybody stepped back when a humanist walked by.» Seven point six percent of all degrees! Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be an English professor was very heaven. Nobody stopped and looked at the numbers more closely. No one took 1980 as a starting point instead of 1970. No one pointed out that 1970 was a blip, an anomaly, a high-water mark that culminated a swift and unprecedented boom in humanities enrollments.
Today, even when people acknowledge that blip, they still tell a story of constant decline. Thus Chace admits that from the late 1940s to early 1970s, English majors climbed from 17,000 to 64,000, «but by 1985-86,» he concludes, «the number of undergraduate English majors had fallen back to 34,000, despite a hefty increase in total nationwide undergraduate enrollment.» Quite true. But by 2003-4, when, as Chace lamented, English accounted for only 3.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees, that number was almost 54,000. Why was no one writing about how the number of English majors had grown by 20,000 over 20 years—almost a 60-percent increase?
Because the real lament is almost always about recent intellectual and curricular developments in the humanities, and the enrollment numbers are little more than a pretext for jeremiads. Thus in his 1999 New York Review of Books essay, titled (what else?) «The Decline and Fall of Literature,» Andrew Delbanco wrote: «Lately it has become impossible to say with confidence whether such topics as ‘Eat Me; Captain Cook and the Ingestion of the Other’ or ‘The Semiotics of Sinatra’ are parodies of what goes on there [at the annual MLA convention] or serious presentations by credentialed scholars.»
Really? Impossible? It looks pretty easy on the face of it. The first title is from a work of fiction by James Hynes (Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror). It is very silly. The second title is real—and it is not silly at all. On the contrary, «the semiotics of Sinatra» sounds like an entirely plausible topic. To me, anyway. But then, in the 1990s, I never could figure out why so many distinguished critics had such trouble with topics I found wholly unobjectionable—as when Frank Kermode complained, in a 1997 essay, of papers on such outlandish subjects as «the gendering of popular morality in certain nineteenth-century novels, the cultural politics of domesticity in a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mother in the Holocaust, Toni Morrison’s feminized historical epic, and so forth.» The horrors perpetrated by the «race-gender-class ideologues» were horrible horrors, so horrible in their horribleness that they reduced one of the 20th century’s greatest literary critics to the plaintive question, «Do you want these people to teach your children?» (Yes, Kermode really asked the won’t-anybody-think-of-the-children question made famous by The Simpsons.)
Recently, Nate Silver, the statistician who has become famous for the accuracy of his analyses of polling data, has weighed in on the inexorable decline of the humanities, and has found, using «numbers» and «arithmetic,» that «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,» Silver said. «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.»
I suspect that this is good news for my attempts to make a similar case, because, as the editors of Politico have repeatedly discovered to their infinite vexation, Nate Silver is correct approximately 100.000 percent of the time. But there’s another way to crunch the numbers as well—and it involves checking the Digest of Education Statistics, published by the National Center for Education Statistics.
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. And, of course, not everyone would consider the visual and performing arts to be part of the humanities. But they are certainly part of that important category «useless degree programs that won’t get you a job and that you will have to explain to your parents.»
And that, I think, is the really remarkable story. Despite skyrocketing tuition rates and the rise of the predatory student-loan industry, despite all the ritual handwringing by disgruntled professors and the occasional op-ed hit man, despite three decades’ worth of rhetoric about how either (a) fields like art history and literature are elite, niche-market affairs that will render students unemployable; or (b) students are abandoning the humanities because they are callow, market-driven careerists … despite all of that, undergraduate enrollments in the humanities have held steady since 1980 (in relation to all degree holders, and in relation to the larger age cohort), and undergraduate enrollments in the arts and humanities combined are almost precisely where they were in 1970.
There is indeed a crisis in the humanities. I have said as much in this very space: It is a crisis in graduate education, in prestige, in funds, and most broadly, in legitimation. But it is not a crisis of undergraduate enrollment. And one of the reasons for the crisis of legitimation, surely, is the constant parade of people, especially among humanists themselves, who continue to talk about enrollment declines in ways that are factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong.
Michael Bérubé is a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, where he is also director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. He is a past pres