No Real Crisis in the Decline of the Humanities?

The New York Times has a Room for Debate forum on the humanities this week, and one of the contributors, Ben Schmidt, takes the opportunity to chide those who repeat “the persistent idea that the humanities are imploding in on themselves.” Citing numbers from the U.S. Department of Education and the Modern Language Association, he announces his conclusion in the title: “The Data Shows [sic] There’s No Real Crisis.”  Since they don’t have the evidence to back up claims of decline, those who “cry ‘crisis,'” Schmidt alleges, have a different motive.  They just don’t like all the “liberal focus on race, class and gender,” and so they manipulate statistics in order to insist that “the humanities need to return to an old canon.”

Schmidt has made the charge before.  Here, Schmidt cites some of the same sources to refute those who assert a crisis condition, and Schmidt even speaks of them as “sell[ing] a crisis.”

But take a look at the source Schmidt terms “the best data about the health of the humanities,” and his contention weakens.  It’s a table from the education statistics office of the U.S. Department of Education that calculates bachelor’s degrees by field of student since 1971.  Schmidt says that the doomsayers choose a misleading year from which to date the decline of the humanities, 1971, when the major was at its height.  On that score, yes, English and foreign languages in 2010 (the last year given) look abysmal, dropping from 7.6 percent and 2.5 percent of all four-year degrees, respectively, to  3.2 percent and 1.3 percent.

Schmidt suggests a different year, “a quarter-century ago,” and notes that history jumped impressively since then.  I presume he means 1986 (the next closest year in the table would be 1991, only 20 years preceding the last year, 2010).  In that year, English made up 3.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees, foreign languages 1.1 percent, which gives us a trend of English only slightly down and foreign languages slightly up.

But this selection of year 1986 only inverts the previous selection, from a high to a low.  If we move from the mid-80s to the early-90s, we have a striking rise in English from 3.4 percent to 4.7 percent, while foreign languages climb a bit from 1.1 percent to 1.3 percent.  Taking 1991, then, we can repeat the claim Schmidt disparages and regret that English has fallen significantly (while foreign languages have stayed the same).

This is to say that Schmidt’s sneering dismissal doesn’t deserve the confidence he gives it.  It also ignores many other cases of decline, for instance, the market for monographs in English and foreign language, the closure of foreign language departments, and the fact that many students select a major that is part of English but misclassified as one of the humanities, that is, creative writing, which belongs in the fine arts.

In fact, the creative writing issue calls out for clarification.  Of course, the creative writing major has exploded since the mid-80s, and if those majors fall under “English” in the Department of Education classification, then the decline of English looks a lot worse no matter what year we choose for comparison.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

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