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The humanities are not in crisis. It’s just that more people are going to college

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Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The humanities are not in crisis in the US, despite what you may have heard.

Here’s what you may have heard: the rising cost of college, coupled with a fiercely competitive job market, is tearing students away from loftier academic pursuits and turning them toward majors that will boost their salaries. Based on that notion, the common refrain has been that society’s intellectual foundations are crumbling. Diana Sorenson, Harvard’s dean of arts and humanities told the Wall Street Journal that the US is in the midst of an “anti-intellectual moment.” David Brooks of the New York Times lamented that in the bygone days when people actually valued the humanities, world leaders had a “clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it.” No more.

The narrative of ongoing moral and intellectual decay is at least as old as the ancient Greeks, and probably older. Concerns about the fall of the humanities in particular were stoked recently by a Harvard report that included the following chart (pdf):

Seemingly horrifying. But there are three fundamental problems with that data.

It doesn’t go back far enough

The chart above starts in the late 1960s, which, as it turns out, was a blockbuster period for enrollment in the humanities. So what looks like severe decay is actually just the declining half of an unusual peak. Ben Schmidt, a graduate student at Princeton, pointed this out on his blog, where he posted a chart that goes back further in time:

The decline since the 1960s is the result of women entering both the workforce and the sciences

Teachers of the humanities probably would have preferred that enrollments stayed high indefinitely after the 1960s. But the reason enrollment in humanities majors fell as a percentage of the total is that women started pursuing more vocational courses of study, along with engineering and the sciences. Gender gaps have been narrowing, which you could argue is the result of people putting their humanities degrees to good use— society has been made more equitable, undoubtedly with the help of people who studied equality.

As a portion of college-aged adults, the number of humanities majors is actually on the rise

The Harvard chart also doesn’t reflect that the number of Americans going to college has been burgeoning for decades. And naturally, many are attending school to improve their job prospects. If you’re like David Brooks, and you are concerned about the humanities having less influence on society, then the right question to ask is: What’s the portion of young adults in America that are walking around with a humanities degree? Turns out that number has been rising—in fact, it has doubled since the 1980s and retuned to the levels seen during the late-60s, early-70s boom.

In a recently published plan for how to rescue the humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asks, “who will lead America into a bright future?” (pdf). Well, how about these folks?

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