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What’s the point of the humanities?

How many potential revolutionaries are lurking in this crowd? Credit: Getty

How many potential revolutionaries are lurking in this crowd? Credit: Getty

August 6, 2018   2 mins

Young people these days are notoriously well behaved. They’re less likely to do drugs, get pregnant or a commit a crime than the youth of earlier decades.

But here’s some other things that they’re less likely to do: English literature, history, philosophy or almost any other humanities degree.

According to Ben Schmidt, American students literally don’t want to know – or, at least, not as much as they used to:

“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.”

Can this be interpreted as a reaction to the financial crisis – with students (and/or their parents) looking less favourably on degree subjects that don’t lead directly to a decent job? Quite possibly, but unlike America’s GDP, the decline in the humanities has continued:

“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.”

The expansion of higher education means that there is a larger number of not-so-academic institutions offering a greater variety of courses in technical and vocational subjects. This would suggest a relatively benign explanation: less a decline and more a ‘dilution’ of the humanities. Except that Schmidt presents a wealth of hard data showing that the decline isn’t just relative (i.e. the proportion of student doing humanities degrees), but also absolute (i.e. the numbers of people doing humanities degrees).

In any case, the figures show that the humanities are in decline at the ‘elite’ universities too:

“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.”

Schmidt is disinclined to blame the influence of ‘post-modern’ (i.e. left-wing and politically correct) ideology on course content and teaching. Yet, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to link the decline in viewpoint diversity in academia to a decline in the number of students willing to engage with the subjects most likely to be affected.

What are America’s young people choosing to study instead?

“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.”

What all of those have in common is that, right now, they look like good bets for future employment (though some people disagree).

Perhaps the best place to conclude is where I began – with the risk-averse tendencies of the post-millennial generation. Committing four years of your life – plus decades more of indebtedness – to the study of an ‘impractical’ subject is, when you think about it, a crazy thing to do. However, like a lot of crazy things, our civilisation would be all the poorer if no one did do it.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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