There may be something to demand-side economics: According to the most recent annual report from the National Science Foundation, the number of Ph.D. degrees awarded in the humanities dropped by almost 5 percent from 2006 to 2007. As Inside Higher Education reported, the decline—steepest for doctorates in literary studies such as English, foreign languages, and the classics, where the number of new Ph.D.-holders fell by 6.9 percent—occurred even as doctorate production overall in American universities increased for the sixth straight year in a row and by 5.4 percent from 2006 to 2007. The most impressive increases were in science and engineering: 14.4 percent more doctoral degrees in computer science, 13.5 percent more in physics, and 7.8 percent more in various fields of engineering. Only two scientific fields, chemistry and mechanical engineering, saw slight declines of 1.5 percent in the number of doctorates awarded (and as Insider Higher Ed noted), chemistry saw an overall increase of 5.1 percent from 1998). Even the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science, and the like) did not fare too badly, their number of doctorates growing by 3.3 percent from 2006 to 2007, while the number of Ph.D. degrees in psychology inched up by 1.1 percent.
That leaves the humanities, whose number of doctorates decreased by 4.6 percent, as the sick man of postgraduate academia. The decline dovetails nicely with the steadily evaporating academic employment opportunities, especially on the tenure track, for literature scholars, historians, philosophers, and other credentialed humanists. On Dec. 4, Inside Higher Ed published what might be called the companion piece to its Nov. 24 report on doctorate production: an article titled “The Tightening Humanities Job Market.” The article reported that “there will be significantly fewer searches this year.” At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this coming January, only 126 history departments across the country plan to conduct recruiting interviews, a 14 percent drop from the 185 who scheduled hiring interviews in January 2007. The American Philosophical Association also predicted a sharp downturn in hiring interviews for its upcoming meeting later this month, as did the American Philological Association, the leading scholarly organization for classicists and classical archaeologists, whose annual meeting takes place in January. The Modern Language Association, representing academics in English and foreign-language departments and scheduled to hold its annual meeting late this month, reported no decline in job postings, but a representative for the MLA told Inside Higher Ed that “a downturn” in full-time positions (in contrast to the wretchedly paying part-time jobs that are the chief growth sector in academic literature departments) was highly likely.
The decline in the number of faculty openings in literature and the other humanities is a decades-long phenomenon, corresponding directly to a steadily decreasing interest on the part of college undergraduates in taking courses, much less majoring, in any of those fields. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in English language and literature declined by 17 percent—from 64,000 to 54,000—from 1971 to 2005, even as the total number of bachelor’s degrees nearly doubled during that period, from 840,000 in 1971 to 1.4 million in 2005. An April 2 article in the Yale Daily News noted that only 37 percent of Yale undergraduates currently major in the humanities, compared with just under 50 percent in 1986. Similarly, the percentage of students, including non-majors, registering for humanities courses at Yale is currently just over 40 percent, compared with 50 percent in 1986.
What that has translated into, year after year, is a vast annual surplus of new humanities Ph.D.s that far outnumbers the entry-level job openings in the humanities. For example (according to a 2002 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education), only 42 percent of those who earned Ph.D.’s in English during the academic year 2000-1 obtained tenure-track teaching jobs that year. Holders of newly minted doctorates in foreign languages faced even dimmer prospects. It would seem that 2007’s reduced number of humanities doctorates reflected aspiring humanities scholars’ finally reading the handwriting on the wall. Some of them seem to realize that spending five or even ten years earning barista-level wages (if that) as adjunct professors before clambering onto the very lowest rung of the tenure ladder (if at all) at age 35 or 40 many not be worth the glory of attaching the prefix “Dr.” to their names.
Humanities scholars like to blame what they call the “corporatization of the university,” the trend among administrators to fund more generously the departments with bigger payoffs in terms of student enrollment and outside grants (that means the sciences). How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation by Marc Bousquet, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Santa Clara, is a 281-page screed against university officials with the temerity to consider their institutions’ bottom lines. What Bousquet and others seem to fail to realize is that humanities professors themselves might bear some responsibility for the anemic state of their fields. It’s true that, given the enormous cost of higher education these days, increasing numbers of undergrads would rather major in a vocational or pre-professional field that qualifies them for a decent-paying job after graduation rather, than, say, English, which qualifies them to work in a bookstore. Still, these trends in humanities departments over the last three decades are also likely factors in increasing indifference to humanities course offerings by undergrads:
` — As Victor David Hanson has noted at City Journal, disintegration of the notion of a classics-focused core humanities curriculum designed to form educated generalists.
` — Near-abandonment of the study of literature by foreign-language majors in favor of trendy cultural-studies offerings (French TV instead of Racine and Flaubert).
— De-emphasis in freshman writing classes on teaching how to write (in English 101 at Drexel University, students get to choose between slaving over an essay or making a poster).
— Resistance among humanities professors to standards for assessing whether their students have actually learned anything.
College students who observe that their professors don’t take the humanities seriously aren’t likely to do so either.
In 1999 Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American literature at Columbia, wrote a scathing essay for the New York Review of Books indicting the decline of the study of literature in humanities departments (“English departments have become places where mass culture–movies television, music videos, along with advertising, cartoons, pornography, and performance art—is studied side by side with literary classics”) and predicting the inevitable: a decline not only in student interest in majoring in English and other humanistic fields, but in donations by alumni who have no memory of professors who might have introduced them to the beauty and significance of great works of literature and art. Delbanco wrote: “[F]ull-scale revival will come only when English professors recommit themselves to slaking the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself.”
For his pains, Delbanco was excoriated by his fellow academics, who wrote letters to the magazine accusing him of “smug vilification” and peddling “fire and brimstone” like a religious fundamentalist. One might conclude that those professors were in denial. Nine years later, the job market in the humanities, as the numbers indicate, is in even worse shape than it was when Delbanco wrote, and undergraduate participation is even lower. And now even potential graduate students seem to be getting the idea that the humanities as taught at universities are dying and that getting a Ph.D. in those fields is probably pointless.