At the end of May Harvard released its report, Mapping the Future, on the situation of the Humanities there. It’s not all gloom and doom but that’s the way many people read it, not least those in the media. The Wall Street Journal, for example, latched on to figures for the decline in humanities majors since the late 1960s. The story was also told graphically:
[If your computer won’t let you see the graph, click here: http://pinterest.com/pin/98023729362369994/ ].
The graph seemed to say it all – a steep, inexorable decline in the health of the humanities. It was a familiar story, often repeated, of once valued learning sliding into oblivion.
Then along came a young researcher who blew the old story out of the water. Some years ago Been Schmidt noticed that the starting point for the graph, 1967, coincided with the point at which government statistics on this matter became easily available online. Good historian that he is, he wondered “What was the situation before 1967?” He found the dusty old publications, copied out the data by hand and discovered that the late 1960s were a high water mark for humanities majors. [ If your can’t see his graph click here and scroll down. http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/2013/06/10/the-humanities-crisis/] .
Schmidt’s graph provides the outline for a new story – a relatively low level of humanities majors in the early 50s is followed by a tsunami in the turbulent 60s. Then the waters rapidly recede, and find a new level, until a very modest increase in the 1990s. Since then there’s been a slow, steady draining away of humanities majors. That’s not “decline and fall” as the Wall Street Journal misleadingly labeled their graph. But just what accounts for these changes?
Well, cherchez la femme. Schmidt didn’t stop with one big finding. He looked at the percentages of humanities majors by gender.  Women, it turned out, had long majored in humanities departments in substantial numbers but recently began migrating to other fields, just as they began entering fields such as law, business, finance, science and engineering in increasing numbers. Doors that had once been closed to them, or only grudgingly opened, began to swing more widely open. It seems likely that women undergraduates, sensing greater opportunity, began to choose majors that might prepare them for careers in these fields. Almost all the change in the percentage of humanities majors from the 1950s to now can be explained, Schmidt showed, by changes in women's choice of majors.
These two findings have blown old tales about the humanities out of the water. That doesn’t mean that everything is hunky-dory in the humanities these days, as I will point out in subsequent blog postings,but the statistics on which we have relied do not lead to narratives of decline, as we once thought, unhappy, whimpering, perhaps demoralizing tales of a lost Golden Age. Nor do they lead to a search for culprits and scapegoats, as David Brooks seems to when he writes in the New York Times:
Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. 
So, Brooks implies, humanist faculty members themselves in a fit of self-destruction have let their disciplines “commit suicide”. That’s not the story, at least not the whole story. When the new story is fully fleshed out, we will surely owe special thanks to Ben Schmidt. 
 “The Humanities Fall from Favor “ by Jennifer Levitz and Douglas Belkin http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324069104578527642373232184.html.
 This would come as no surprise to Michael Berube who has repeatedly made a similar point (most recently in http://crookedtimber.org/2010/11/16/breaking-news-humanities-in-decline-film-at-11/. He notes that the decline from 1974 - 85 was even larger in the social and natural sciences. Students who formerly might have majored in the humanities now were likely to move to Business, Engineering and Computer Sciences. The proliferation in recent years of pre-career majors such as Parks and Recreation, Justice Studies , a.k.a. Law Enforcement, has also adversely affected the percentage of majors in Business, as well as in the liberal arts and sciences.
 “ http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/
 See also the comments on narratives of decline in my essay “Last Bastion if Liberal Education” in InsideHigherEd.com: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/07/24/connor.
 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/opinion/brooks-the-humanist-vocation.html. David Silbey takes on Brooks, pointing out that the figures don’t match Brooks’ narrative: http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/2013/06/21/the-joy-of-start-points/
 Anthony Grafton makes many of these same points in his incisive essay “The Humanities in Dubious Battle” http://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-in-Dubious/140047/