The Decline of the Humanities and Who’s to Blame

This year is the 30th Anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. That book made Bloom and anyone who liked it unambiguous enemies of the humanities.

Bill Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, Lynn Cheney, the founders of the National Association of Scholars and the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer (in their annual report on the MLA Convention in The New Criterion), John Silber, David Horowitz and Peter Collier (in their updates on the academy in Heterodoxy), the relatively few distinguished academics such as John Ellis at UC-Santa Cruz who spoke up against identity politics were cast as bigoted and reactionary.

They were judged too stupid and uninformed to appreciate the extraordinary developments in the humanities, exciting formations such as French feminism and sexuality studies. If the conservatives and traditionalists predicted a dark future of the humanities, well, that was just because they didn’t have the acuity to understand how rich and cutting-edge theory and cultural studies had become.

It is important to keep this perpetual wave of discreditation in mind as the empirical evidence of decline rushes in. Last week, we reported on the steep drop in history jobs. Now, we have a preliminary report from the Modern Language Association that shows a discouraging plummet in regular jobs in English and foreign languages. If you look at the charts in this post by David Laurence, the MLA’s leading researcher, you can see how bad the decline really is. For instance:

  • Jobs in English are down 10.7 percent from last year.
  • Jobs in foreign languages are down 12 percent from last year.
  • English had 851 jobs listed last year, which is lower than any year on the chart (which goes back to 1975-76).
  • Foreign languages came in at 808, which is also lower than any other year listed.
  • Both areas are well below the numbers for jobs in the year after the recession hit, 22 percent fewer in English and 21 percent fewer in foreign languages.

Those of us in the humanities who are conservative regret this decline, but we saw it coming. We were certain that identity politics, which thoroughly took over the humanities in the 80s and 90s, would appeal to a shrinking cohort of American undergraduates. Respect from across the campus would go down, and so would course enrollments.

Graduate applications would remain steady because the smaller number of students who loved identity politics in classrooms wanted to stay in the field. To many of them, the commitment was personal. But graduate interest doesn’t sustain the departments, not on campuses where resources are limited and other departments compete for lines and salaries and office space. You need support from the base.

But our warnings were met with sarcastic replies such as this one, the author of which accused us of trying to “sell a crisis.” And this one, which called us “Factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong.”

I haven’t seen any of the people who mocked conservatives and traditionalists for their sky-is-falling rhetoric say in response to the catastrophes of the last few years that they were wrong. They can’t. When you dispute an opponent over the facts, but stick to those facts and hold off on raillery, you can change your mind and make admissions. But when you desire not only to prove your adversary wrong but to discredit him, you can’t go back.

That would mean accrediting him, and humanities professors dislike conservatives too much to do that. The field rightly stays in their hands and nobody else’s. If it’s going down and down, that can’t be because they made the wrong choices and invested in the wrong things.

Instead of acknowledging their mismanagement, they say things such as this commentary in Salon that accepts the decline of the humanities but blames it on a “war on the liberal arts” prosecuted by, yes, conservatives. (It’s by an undergraduate who, no doubt, got lots of faculty coaching.)

The only rejoinder to such statements is this: “The university at large and the humanities, in particular, have been in the hands of liberals and leftists for many, many years. The ratio of conservative professors to liberal professors has dropped significantly in the last twenty years. The profession belongs to the center-left and the left. The outcomes are your responsibility.”

2 thoughts on “The Decline of the Humanities and Who’s to Blame”

  1. I dunno, J.K. Wilson. It looks like a catastrophic decline to me however I look at it. Total number of jobs down by more than half in 10 years. Take out the adjunct positions and it’s still a disaster.

    In my own local environment — large state “flagship” university in a blue state — budgets are tied closely to student credit hours and number of majors. And the humanities are getting clobbered. Probably because the students think, rightly or wrongly, that the humanities are not helpful in having a career after the degree. Some departments that have taken care to cater to their students are doing well, e.g. perhaps surprisingly, philosophy. I don’t know if the shift in content of most humanities departments toward less traditional studies plays a role in the students shying away. But shying away they are. And the administrators are happy to shift “resources” to the departments that are getting the students — especially the STEM departments.

    I agree that the decline in humanities majors has been exaggerated. I don’t see that the humanities mainstream has exactly been picking on people like Mark Bauerlein. I do suspect, however, that the humanities could do a much better job of projecting an image (and reality) of preparing students for life after college. As I said, local departments that do this — or at least cater to student interests — seem to be doing well.

  2. This argument is mostly nonsense. Jobs aren’t disappearing; tenure-track jobs are disappearing, replaced by adjuncts. There’s an economic crisis, not an intellectual crisis.
    You can look at this graph and see far greater declines in engineering majors, presumably not because of postmodernism. English majors today are about the same percentage as 1982; they grew in the 1980s and 1990s (when the crisis supposedly happened) and then declined gradually since then.

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