More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

By Mark Bauerlein

In recent years, several critics have chided those of us who say the humanities are fading by citing statistics on undergraduate enrollments that show no real declines at all since the 1980s.

One reason for the rebuke is that many arguing the “crisis” do so on the basis of intellectual decline, specifically, the rise of identity politics in the humanities, which have often made the disciplines a joke across the quad. (See here.)

Liberal defenders of race-class-gender-sexuality-disability-queerness-etc. studies don’t like to admit that their enthusiasms haven’t brought more respect to the fields, much less any material gains in recent years. And so, they call upon the numbers and sprinkle smug remarks against the other side among them, as in this piece by a past president of the Modern Language Association.

But the bad news keeps coming. The Job List of the Modern Language Association came out this month, and for the third straight year, the openings declined significantly. The number of jobs in English (1,015) for 2014-15 fell 3 percent, while all the foreign languages (949) saw a decline of 7.6 percent.

If we go back to 2009-10, English jobs this year fall 7.7 percent, while foreign languages are 7.3 percent lower. When we pull out tenure-track positions, things look worse. This year, 67.3 percent of the jobs available are tenure-track, a tiny rise of 0.8 percent from last year, but still way below the number of doctorates awarded in any calendar year. For the foreign languages, tenure-track jobs make up only 50.4 percent of the whole list, a slip of 2.1 percentage points from 2013-14. In previous years, tenure-track positions made up 75-80 percent of English jobs and 60-65 percent of foreign language jobs. Clearly, schools are shifting more and more teaching duties to adjunct positions and one-year lectureships.

What this means is that the build-up of bitter, frustrated job seekers continues. Many of those PhDs from 2010, 2011, 2012 . . . who didn’t get tenure-track jobs in past years are still out there sending applications to every job listing that comes close to their expertise, creating a pool of thousands of qualified people for hundreds of jobs. Tell them that the humanities are doing fine.

There are two other trends to factor into this dismal picture. We had a crushing decline in job openings after the 2008 economic crisis. As the Inside Higher Ed story notes, “The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10.” People expected that some good financial years for private university endowments and public university state budgets would yield a steady recovery.

But, as you see above, that hasn’t happened. The other trend that should have spurred tenure-track hiring was the retirement of Boomer professors. Many of those people hired in the 70s have lingered in their posts beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, holding their posts through the 00s. They are now leaving, but it appears they aren’t being replaced with regular faculty lines. I suspect this is because the number of majors in the departments doesn’t justify their full replacement.

This is a hard fact that the-humanities-are-doing-just-fine crowd can’t spin out of existence.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

3 thoughts on “More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

  1. Why does Professor Bauerlein always start out talking about the humanities but always end up talking only about English? English is part of the humanities, but there are other disciplines in the humanities that are not English. How is philosophy doing as a discipline? History? Various foreign languages? And so on.

  2. “I suspect this is because the number of majors in the departments doesn’t justify their full replacement … This is a hard fact that the-humanities-are-doing-just-fine crowd can’t spin out”

    Mark Bauerlein sure spins out trying to dig a “fact” out of what he “suspects.”

    It may be — I won’t claim I have any “hard facts” — that tenure track openings are declining (slightly) because college enrollments are declining (slightly) after the post-recession boom.

    Or it may be, as seems to be the case where I toil, that administrations are favoring the sciences and other supposedly lucrative fields because they think — wrongly, I suspect — that that is where the money is.

    What I’d really like to see is data on enrollment trends in the various fields. What I see, again where I toil, is a pullback in science enrollments after a big boom during the recession. I don’t know how the humanities and social sciences are doing now; they did suffer a decline during the recession.

  3. I don’t know anyone who thinks the humanities in academia are doing just fine, but the problem isn’t declining enrollment or intellectual weakness. The problem is managerial and economic: as colleges are run more like corporations and adjunct jobs replace tenure-track ones, there is a shortage of good tenured positions. That’s purely a decision of academe’s managers. Those who celebrate the economic decline of the humanities (because of their ideological hatred of what some scholars believe) are part of the problem.

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