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The Humanities — Again??

Yes, again. In yet another essay on the decline of the humanities, or the crisis in the humanities, or whatever, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes,

In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number.

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.

But do we know whether the cases of Yale and Pomona are representative? At Wheaton College, where I taught for around three decades, there are around 200 English majors in a student body of 2300. I doubt that that’s representative either, but it indicates that all the arrows don’t point in the same direction.

Consider this report from the National Center for Education Statistics — thanks to Gerry Canavan on Twitter for pointing this out to me — which shows that in 1970-71 the percentage of college degrees granted in the humanities was 17.1%, whereas in 2009-10 it was … 17.0%. Not exactly a crash. The low point in humanities degrees was actually in the mid-1970s, as Ben Schmidt points out here in a post that demonstrates just how hard it is to find and interpret the numbers relevant to these questions.

The frustrating things to me about these debates is that, however you slice them, the numbers offer so little meaningful information. If we know that someone received a degree in the humanities, that doesn’t tell us which of the humanities disciplines he or she majored in. If we know the numbers for specific disciplines, we don’t know the content of students’ education: what books they read, how those books were taught, how the students engaged with those books through writing, and so on. More important still, the numbers about who majored in what tell us nothing about which young people have lives informed by the values we humanists hold most dear. I have known economics majors who read literature in lively and passionate ways, and have known English majors whose encounters with even the greatest of texts seem dry and mechanical.

Building a culture that fosters and rewards deep, lifelong attentiveness to books worth reading — that’s what counts for far more than percentages of college degrees. And that’s where humanists should focus the lion’s share of their own attention.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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