D R A F T
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My last blog posting (“The New Story about the Humanities”) expressed great admiration for new quantitative studies of what is happening in this area. From them we can see that it’s not a story of steady decline or imminent collapse, as many have suggested, but of fluctuations tied, at least in part, to shifts in social, economic and cultural attitudes.
Good! No more narratives of decline. There is, however, a problem in the statistics. It seems a small one, but it has some big implications. Decline–and-Fall folks live off the percentage of student majoring in various fields. For example, Mark Bauerlein recently cited a summary of one set of such figures: “For English majors, Silver counts a proportion of 7.6 percent 40 years ago, 4.7 percent 20 years ago, 4.1 percent 10 years ago, and 3.1 percent in 2011.“. At that rate there will be no English majors at all in a few decades!
But it’s not just the Decline-and-Fall folks who rely on the percentage of majors in various fields as their single indicator of the overall health of the humanities. Ben Schmidt and other skeptics about narratives of decline also rely on these figures, sometimes representing them as “enrollments.” They are not course enrollments totals; they are the number of graduates who end up in one major or another. In some fields, such as mine, enrollment figures and the number of majors may be radically different. , Classics departments often show strong enrollment numbers from courses taught in English translation, such as Mythology, Great Books, Western Civilization, Etymology, etc. At the same time the number of majors (who need to have some mastery of the ancient languages) can be pitifully small. Something similar, I suspect, may be the case in other humanistic fields such as modern languages, philosophy, music, maybe even English.
So “majors” don’t necessarily correlate with “enrollments.” Tracking changes in the percentage of majors in various fields, moreover, is meaningless unless one knows how many majors are being offered at various points in time. If, for example, an institution offered majors in 25 fields forty years ago, and 50 such majors today, you’d expect the average department’s share of majors to drop from 4% to 2%, simply because there were more majors around for students to choose from.
How likely is that scenario? The last half century has been a time of vast increase in human knowledge, some of it in the humanities but more spectacularly in science, medicine and technology. New knowledge has led to new majors, plenty of them. In addition the creative arts have increasingly found a congenial setting in colleges and universities – with majors now commonly offered in Dance, Studio Arts, Creative Writing, Theater and Performing Arts, among others.
I found my alma mater provided a good case study of these shifts. The Hamilton College web site (http://www.hamilton.edu/catalogue) lists 52 fields in which one can now major, of which more than half, if memory serves, were not offered when I was a student over fifty years ago. Most of the added fields are in the creative arts, ethnic or identity studies, and the natural sciences. Some are in the social sciences, but only a few in the humanities. So, in a purely statistical sense, one has to expect that the percentage of degrees in the humanities would decline.
At the national level we have seen in addition the proliferation of majors in in fields that should lead to careers immediately after the bachelor’s degree, not just old stand-bys such as business, K-12 education, health related professions, but newer fields such as Homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting, Parks and recreation and Transportation and materials moving.  Eve Mortuary Science is now a bachelor’s level major at 19 American colleges and universities. Whatever the intellectual quality of these majors, statistically speaking, their introduction means that older fields would almost inevitably experience a percentage decline in majors.
Relying on the percentage of majors in a field is, then, a flawed metric for determining the health of the humanities. What would be a better metric? How about total course enrollments- are they going up or down? Or, better, total course enrollments as as a percentage of all students in college? It turns out that extracting such enrollment figures is not easy. The only humanistic fields for which I have found such data are the foreign languages, where the Modern Language Association has for some years tracked enrollment trends, language by language and overall. The MLA’s most recent figures show a 6.6% increase in foreign language enrollments from 2006 to 2009, though with dramatic differences among the individual languages. (The biggest gains were in Chinese and Korean; the biggest decline was in Modern Hebrew.) The percentage of students studying foreign languages, moreover, does not match the “decline and fall” scenarios. True, that percentage dropped precipitously after the boom in the 1960s, reaching a low of 7.3 per 100 college students around 1980. But since then enrollments per hundred students have slowly but steadily increased to 8.6 in 2009.
Comparable figures for enrollments in other fields are badly needed but the foreign language figures are enough to make one cautious about relying on the number of majors as the sole indicator of the health of the humanities. In such situations the metric often determines the narrative and the response. Rely solely on majors and you may well end up with a demoralizing narrative of decline. Even worse, departments and others will be tempted to misdirect their efforts at improvement, focusing exclusively on attracting more majors rather than reaching out to students in other fields.
Here’s a thought experiment that will clarify what I mean. Imagine a student who decides to major in Economics, but supplements courses in that field with ones in the Chinese language, Comparative Literature, Asian history, and Eastern religions. She will not show up in the count of majors in humanistic field. But do we wish to dismiss her as a loss to the humanities? Or consider a student I taught some years ago, who decided (despite my advising) to major in Public Policy, but still kept talking courses in Classics and ancient history. I suspect that J.P. Sarbanes is a better Congressman today because of the breadth of his course selections back then.
A reliable statistical picture of the health of the humanities has to find a way to pay attention to such students. In the meantime, we’d be well advised not to rely solely on the percentage of majors.
 “Nate Silver Crunches the Humanities” http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/07/15/nate-silver-crunches-the-humanities/
 For example, Schmidt is loose in his phrasing when he refers in his very valuable “Crisis in the Humanities, or Just Women in the Workplace?” to “ … the long-term collapse in humanities enrollment [Italics mine] has to do with the increasing choice of women …’. (http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2013/06/crisis-in-humanities-or-just-women-in.html#more )The context makes clear that he means the decline in the percentage of students majoring in humanistic fields, not enrollments.
 “ Of the 1,650,000 bachelor's degrees conferred in 2009–10, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of business (358,000); social sciences and history (173,000); health professions and related programs (130,000); and education (101,000)” (See table 286) National Center for Educational Statistics: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/ch_3.asp. These fields are followed by Biological and biomedical sciences, Computer science, Engineering and the visual and performing arts. See also (esp. fig. 16) http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/figures/fig_16.asp?referrer=figures
 See especially figurer 5 in Nelly Furman, et al., Enrollments in Languages other than English” Fall 2009: http://www.mla.org/pdf/2009_enrollment_survey.pdf
 If, however, she is formally enrolled in a language program as a “second major,” that fact may be reflected in some figures, as the MLA has noted “Data on Second Majors in Language and
Literature, 2001–08 “http://www.mla.org/pdf/data_second_majors.pdf
 Anthony Grafton makes a similar point in
http://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-in-Dubious/140047/ I am indebted to him for many insights into the situation of the humanities.