College students have been beating a path away from the humanities. Since the 1970s, the percentage of American college students majoring in humanities fields has been cut in half—to only seven percent—as students pursue degrees in programs like science and business. As a result, a number of colleges are shuttering their under-attended programs, which is in turn shooting anxiety through the professorial guild as humanities professors fret for their future. This anxiety is given clear voice in this New York Times piece:
“In the scholarly world, cognitive sciences has everybody’s ear right now, and everybody is thinking about how to relate to it,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard history professor. “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year? But everybody’s reading science books.”
Many distinguished humanities professors feel their status deflating. Anthony Grafton, a Princeton history professor who started that university’s humanities recruiting program, said he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”
The humanities meltdown is a huge indictment of the academic fads and trends of the last generation. A serious liberal arts education in the humanities (which Via Meadia readers should remember that to us also includes a grounding in both math and science) is actually the most practical education for many students. Learning how to learn, how to communicate ideas effectively, how to assess complex situations and develop good strategies for addressing them, and strengthening your character and spiritual life: these are all more vital than ever before in the 21st century. 20th century French literary criticism, faddish race class and gender curriculums, jihads against the tradition canon because there are too many DWEMs (Dead White European Males) in it: those are less useful. Unfortunately, this is where too many professors in too many humanities departments focus too much of their energy, and students are beginning to tune them out.
Today’s humanities faculties that can’t build student enrollments are like people who can’t sell umbrellas during a rainstorm: great teachers teaching great books and great ideas are exactly what most students need. Unfortunately, too many people in the field in the last generation were interested in producing bad or indifferent teachers who taught dull and impenetrable books filled with tendentious and superficial ideas. And as for concepts like character and spiritual development, forget it. Fortunately, this seems to be changing among many younger faculty and grad students and there are grounds to hope that the humanities in America will regain some balance and poise.
In the meantime, the humanities are now reaping the natural and inevitable rewards of a generation in the wilderness: a deadly combination of student indifference and falling support among both donors and government legislators. The priests deserted the gods; the gods have deserted the temple.
[Lecture hall photo courtesy of Shutterstock]