Mea culpa: there *is* a crisis in the humanities

By Ben Schmidt

Back in 2013, I wrote a few blog post arguing that the media was hyperventilating about a "crisis" in the humanities, when, in fact, the long term trends were not especially alarming. I made two claims them: 1. The biggest drop in humanities degrees relative to other degrees in the last 50 years happened between 1970 and 1985, and were steady from 1985 to 2011; as a proportion of the population, humanities majors exploded. 2) The entirety of the long term decline from 1950 to 2010 had to do with the changing majors of women, while men's humanities interest did not change.

I drew two inference from this. The first was: don't panic, because the long-term state of the humanities is fairly stable. Second: since degrees were steady between 1985 and 2005, it's extremely unlikely that changes in those years are responsible for driving students away. So stop complaining about "postmodernism," or African-American studies: the consolidation of those fields actually coincided with a long period of stability.

I stand by the second point. The first, though, can change with new information. I've been watching the data for the last five years to see whether things really are especially catastrophic for humanities majors. I tried to hedge my bets at the time: 

It seems totally possible to me that the OECD-wide employment crisis for 20-somethings has caused a drop in humanities degrees. But it's also very hard to prove: degrees take four years, and the numbers aren't yet out for the students that entered college after 2008.
But I may not have hedged it enough. The last five years have been brutal for almost every major in the humanities--it's no longer reasonable to speculate that we are fluctuating around a long term average. So at this point, I want to explain why I am now much more pessimistic about the state of humanities majors than I was five years ago. I'll show a few charts, but here's the one that most inflects my thinking.

One thing I learned in a humanities field is that people with strong opinions are always eager for a crisis because it gives a chance to trot out solutions they came up with years earlier. Little-c conservatives tend to argue that the humanities must return to some set of past practices: teaching Great Works or military history. As I said above, these arguments tend to be misguided--they often assume laughable propositions (yes, colleges still teach Shakespeare), and they don't match the contours of the humanities' decline. Practicing academics tend to write pieces arguing that some pedagogical tactic they've found to work (flipped classrooms! joint majors with CS! community integration! non-traditional assignments!) needs to be more widely adopted. Big-picture thinkers argue that we need to "make the case" for the skills taught in humanities fields, since a society where citizens lack empathy (which you get from reading novels) or a sense of their history (which is often generalized into a pan-humanities virtue) or an ability to realize a figured base at the keyboard (which is what I spent my humanities credits on) is an impoverished and endangered one.

I don't have a solution to peddle. But the drop in majors since 2008 has been so intense that I now think there is, in the only meaningful sense of the word, a crisis. That is: we are in a momentum of rapid change in which decisions are especially important, and will have continuing ramifications. If you still have the same opinions you did in 2010 or 2013, it's worth reassessing the situation. Unless current trends reverse rapidly and for several years, humanities education in the 2020s will have to be different than it was in the 2000s.

Here are the general points.

1. No matter what baseline you use, virtually every humanities major from big, old ones like English to small, newer ones like gender studies went into significant decline around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. (UPDATE: actually, the small fraction of the humanities classed as "cultural, gender and ethnic studies" is one of the few fields *not* to shrink. I was confusing cultural studies with area studies, which did shrink. This is a fairly significant mistake on my part. Sorry.)

2. Rather than recover with the economy, that decline accelerated around 2011-2012. That period constitutes an inflection point for a variety of majors in and out of the humanities. Though it may have slowed a bit in the last few years, there's little sign that the new post-2011 universe holds signs of a turnaround. 3. More humanistic social sciences like sociology or political science are also caught in the undertow: the big winners are mostly concentrated in the STEM fields. 4. These trends are widespread across institutions that they may reflect student preferences formed before they see a college classroom.

The rest of this will spell out some of the data based on preliminary IPEDS releases from the Department of Education. In all cases I'm working directly from the raw data. The code I use for parsing is here. Particularly for 2017 statistics, there have not yet been any government publications giving aggregates. I generally use the American Academy of Arts and Sciences taxonomy of the humanities with one major exception: I don't consider communications to be a humanities discipline. Sometimes I see humanists suggesting that things must be better in the areas where we don't have measurements, often with reference to local anecdotes.

The big picture, I think, is: after the boom and bust of the 60s and 70s, the humanities entered a long period of stability from about 1990 to 2010 or so. That period has ended, and now we're entering a new one in which levels will be very different. We'll obviously stabilize somewhere, probably in the next few years, and maybe we'll rebound a bit, but I'd be very surprised if humanities numbers in five years were even 2/3 what they were in 2005.

There are, of course, other majors than these four. Here are all of the fields classed as "humanities" by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Thanks to Rob Townsend for sending their list my way. It's worth noting here that I developed my acquaintance with this dataset working on the first version of the humanities indicators at the Academy in 2005.) According to their taxonomy, every field but humanistic subfields of communications and linguistics (the two fields with the weakest claims to actually being "humanities") has seen substantial drops in share since 2009. EDIT: Not sure why I missed this, but I just noticed that "cultural, ethnic, and gender studies" are also stable. This is a very small percentage of the humanities (all put together, maybe a tenth of English), but an important caveat nonetheless.

You can also see in these charts how recent the shift is. Although English has been in steady decline for an extraordinarily long time (practically unchecked since the mid-1990s), fields like history, philosophy, and classics were booming before 2008.

"Share" can be a funny way to think about colleges, though, since the field of higher education itself is constantly expanding. So here's the most optimistic take I can give. It shows the 70-year story, which is full of radical ups and downs. The y-axis gives the number of degrees per one thousand 23-year-olds in the country. Since the 2011 results, the humanities have fallen from 37.1 degrees per thousand adults to 28.0 (about a 25% drop); the big four, for which I have data back to the 1940s, have fallen from 29.8 to 21.7 per thousand (a 27% drop). This exceeds all but one previous fall in humanities majors: the drop in the 1970s. That 1970s drop, I argued, coincided with the opening of professional fields to woman and the quick deflation of the big boomer bubble of the late 1960s, in which first-generation college students seem to have piled into humanities majors at schools across the country. The question is: why the drop since 2008?

Even by raw numbers--which is not an especially useful baseline in a growing country--you can see a massive shift since 2011. Here I've pegged each major to its maximum year: that was 2009 for English, 2010 for history, and 2011/2012 for the other fields. This makes the shape of the changes abruptly clear--the raw number of English and History majors is down more than a quarter from these extremely recent peaks. On the other hand, all fields except the two largest are at least absolutely higher than in 2000.

I occasionally worry that talk of the "humanities crisis" could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately or unfortunately, though, the shift seems to have more to do with content than with labels. The social science fields that most closely resemble humanistic ones--sociology, anthropology, international relations, and political science--have also seen serious drops. Here are 22 fields that I track. I've put a line at 2011 because it's frequently an inflection point--you also see many shifts around 2008 and 2015 or so.

The big winners in recent years have been health professions, including nursing; computer science and engineering; biological science and to a lesser degree, physical sciences; and what I oddly call "leisure," which includes things like sports management and exercise studies.

The drop in allied disciplines has one important implication worth spelling out. Many historians take solace that they don't primarily rely on majors. (My history department's largest courses are usually driven by students fulfilling requirements from IR and journalism). When those majors drop, there are ripple effects through all the related fields. When just one discipline is in free fall--as was the case, say, with English in the early 2000s--things are not as bad for *even that discipline*, because comp lit majors or communications majors or the like will still take their courses. When all the fields dedicated to the qualitative study of society and culture are falling, there will be ripple effects throughout.

The trend is stronger higher up the prestige chain.

Elite schools matter because they are where almost all humanities PhDs are trained, because they are the only institutions that have historically been especially focused on humanities, and because they tend to unfairly dominate national discussions, and because they present a baseline impervious to the shifting landscape of higher education. Using the top 30 schools in the 2017 US News and World Report rankings as a proxy for quality, here's the breakdown in changes in humanities majors by American Academy classification of humanities and Carnegie classification of schools. (Again, this includes communications and 'liberal studies,' neither of which I personally think are truly humanities fields.) The elite liberal arts colleges were, until 2011 or so, the only schools where humanities, social sciences, and sciences actually split up the pie evenly: now humanities are down from 35% to 22% of degrees. The drop at elite research universities is similarly steep. (At both, humanities are down to about 70% of their 2008 values.
We can also look at the fall for peak for all the majors that the American Academy tracks at elite universities. Aside from linguistics, communications, and "general studies," all are down by more than 20%. English is down by more than 50% from its 2001 peak at these schools, and history down by almost 50% from its pre-recession peak.

We also know this trend is likely to persist for a few more years, at least. As part of its lawsuit about discrimination against Asian-American applicants, Harvard released information about the intended majors of its applicant pool. The Harvard applicant pool is certainly weird, but is also big (10,000 students) and probably about as good a proxy as we can get for the student body of elite colleges. The class of 2014 (well into the nationwide humanities collapse had about 20% of students intending a humanities major; that share has dropped to about 12%. Only for the class of 2019 do the numbers seem to stabilize.

I said up front I don't have a solution. But I should be clear that one thing I would have liked to argue isn't backed up by the data, in the spirit of mea culpas.

I hold the slightly unfashionable opinion among humanities professors that universities should award fewer PhDs in the humanities, and that efforts to "refocus" the PhD into a degree that doesn't only point to academic employment are likely to be much more beneficial to humanities professors than to the students who spend 8 years in them. (For instance; the American Academy recently found, although they didn't frame it in these terms that humanities PhDs in non-academic employment are twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs as those who stay in the academy, while in every other field of education non-academic employment is just as rewarding.)
During the 1970s drop in humanities degrees, humanities PhDs halved in number. I would have liked to exploit this crisis to argue we need to do that again. But in fact, PhDs have leveled out, and the long-term variability of phd numbers mean that the BA to PhD ratio is at an unremarkable level--it's dropped 20% from 2008, but is higher than at any point before 2000. 

I was too complacent in 2013: am I being too pessimistic now? Maybe. There are plenty of ways you can squint and think the data is leveling out. I certainly don't think the steep declines of the past decade can continue for another decade.

I may also be over-dismissive of course enrollment numbers, since they're harder to get. AHA surveys show history department enrollments dropping by about 9% since 2014. This is bad, but not as catastrophic as the major numbers. (Although: we don't know what happened from 2008 to 2014, which might matter more.) But still: I think any empirically-inclined person needs to be more pessimistic than they were five years ago.

A few supplemental notes that I may expand.

1. There's not a very strong racial component, but there are a couple interesting facts about African Americans. First is that HBCUs have not seen the declines that affect most other institution types (albeit from a low baseline.) Second is that black men show much less change in their humanities inclination than any other demographic group. I do not have any explanation of this.