The New York Times on Halloween reported more scary news about the Humanities – students at Stanford and elsewhere were scurrying away from these subjects, like kids scared by a haunted house. It’s an informative article, but its statistical base is flawed in part by the persistent error of measuring the health of the humanities by the percentage of students majoring in various humanistic fields, without calculating the increase over time of the total number of departments in which students can major. That skews a lot of the data.
The article also fails to take into account the hitherto untapped demand for skilled presentation of the humanities. MOOCs are one indicator of that,- 43,000 enrolled in the first iteration of Andy Szegedy-Maszak’s Greek History, 35,00 in Greg Nagy’s “HeroesX,” 50,000 enrolled in Peter Struck’s Classical Mythology Even after high attrition, the numbers of those finishing and passing a final test are impressive – around 4,000 for example in the second iteration of Szegedy-Maszak's Greek History.
The interest is out there, whether or not it translates into majors at elite universities.
But there is one statistic about the humanities that really matters. Andy Delbanco verbalized it in the Times article :
“Both inside the humanities and outside, people feel that the intellectual firepower in the universities is in the sciences, that the important issues that people of all sorts care about, like inequality and climate change, are being addressed not in the English departments.”
There’s some partial support for that view from a statistic in a report issued last spring by Harvard University called ”Mapping the Future“: Over the last 8 years, more than half of students who as pre-Freshmen indicate an intention to concentrate in a Humanities concentration end up in a different division” p. 8. You can see the movement in figure 10 of the report. The pre-freshmen who said they were likely to concentrate in the humanities migrate to other fields more than other groups do. But they don’t head primarily for the natural sciences, but to Government and Economics.
That statistic has to be combined with another troubling one from Harvard, that since 2,000 the percentage of admitted students indicating they were likely to concentrate in a humanistic field has declined from 27% to 18% (fig. 6 of the report). So are the “brightest and best” moving away from the humanities, even at a university with the strength and tradition of Harvard?
Is that the situation on other campuses? If so, what’s going on? There are three possible explanations, it seems to me:
- Pre-freshmen interested in the humanities are more intellectually adventurous than those heading into other fields. They are more inclined to explore and when they think they see the promised land, they migrate.
- Student today want, as John Medlin once put it, “either to save the world or own it.” If you want to save it, maybe a Government (or Politics as Woodrow Wilson would say) is the right major. If you want to own it, better head off to Economics Department.
- The kids are driven away by what is taught and how it is being taught in the humanities these days – it’s all too trendy, too theoretical, too based on identity-studies, etc. One way to test that hypothesis is to look at what’s being offered in the Harvard English department this year. Here’s the link to their offerings.