Decline of the humanities up for debate

Humanities
Photo by Yale Daily News.

In June, New York Times columnist David Brooks sparked controversy and concern with his column decrying the death of the humanities in American institutions of higher learning.

“The humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market,” Brooks wrote. “They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.”

Brooks — who is also a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs who teaches an undergraduate seminar — cited national statistics that show a 50 percent decline in the number of humanities majors in the past 50 years.

Academics and commentators across the country have cited these same figures as heralds of the impending collapse of the humanities disciplines, positing causes including the current state of the economy, a shift toward the sciences, the impracticality of studying ancient texts in a modern world, and as Brooks claimed, a loss of inspiration within the humanities disciplines themselves.

But one researcher, Northeastern University assistant professor Benjamin Schmidt, a Princeton Ph.D. candidate, felt that many studies on the humanities’ decline did not explain the statistics fully. Through research of his own, Schmidt discovered that the brunt of the national decrease in humanities majors was caused by the migration of female students to other disciplines that had traditionally been dominated by men. Schmidt said he feels his research provides an alternate explanation for the much-hyped “crisis” in the humanities, adding that he thinks humanities enrollment is unlikely to decline significantly more in the future.

“I want to combat two things,” Schmidt said. “The first is the idea that people have gotten suddenly practical and stopped majoring in humanities, and then the other is that self-fulfilling prophecy that comes from people [thinking the humanities is impractical].”

Though Schmidt’s research has begun receiving attention among scholars of higher education, its broader applicability remains unclear. At Yale and the other Ivy League schools, Schmidt acknowledged that the story is more complex. Yale College did not open its doors to women until 1969 — after second-wave feminism began offering new career options to women.

In 1971, the first year that women graduated from Yale, roughly 53 percent of female students majored in the humanities, compared to 37 percent of males. For the class of 2013, those statistics stand at about 25 percent for females and 21 percent for males.

Deputy Provost for the Arts and Humanities Emily Bakemeier said she thinks some students will always be interested in the humanities, but she added that the University has seen increased interest in fields outside the humanities, particularly in economics.

When women were first admitted to Yale, the University was widely considered a citadel of the humanities.

Ruth Jarmul ’71, who was a member of Yale’s first co-ed class, said the humanities departments — led by “god-like” professors such as Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 and John Hersey ’36 — made up the essence of the University when she was there.

“Yale was, as it continues to be, so strong in the humanities that people sort of expected to major in the humanities,” Jarmul said. “You could major in the sciences or something else, but it just wasn’t the focus of the University and it wasn’t the focus of society.”

When she entered Yale, Barbara Blaine ’71, another member of the college’s first co-ed class, said she did not feel pressure to major in any given discipline because she was a woman. Still, Blaine acknowledged that certain courses were taken only by males.

“The first year I was there, I was in a macroeconomics class, and I was the only woman in a class of about 60 to 70 people,” Blaine said. “The professor just really didn’t know what to do with me, but he was trying to be nice, so pretty much every class he’d ask me what was the woman’s point of view.”

But Blaine said she does not think the dominance of humanities for Yale’s first women reflected a gendered choice, as most students at Yale, male and female alike, majored in the humanities.

For almost 30 years, history reigned as the University’s most popular major for all undergraduates. But students today are choosing to major in a more diverse range of disciplines — in 2010, history lost its spot at the top and was replaced by political science and economics. Over 40 percent of the Yale class of 2016 intends to major in a STEM field — making it the first class to reach the Admissions Office’s STEM recruiting goals.

Though some have pointed to these changes as a sign of the humanities’ decline, administrators said the demand for humanities courses has remained consistently high. Growth in other fields, they said, does not necessarily mean interest in the humanities is declining.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she thinks the strong teaching in Yale’s humanities departments will continue to attract students, regardless of their major. Miller added that she thinks that hype surrounding the “crisis” in humanities is a self-fulfilling prophecy and encourages students, who are facing an uncertain job market, to view humanities majors as impractical.

“I think students feel pressure on many more dimensions than they did in the past,” Miller said. “We’re in the middle of a great recession, and there’s a lot more pressure on students and their families to have measurable, demonstrable success.”

The exact reasons for the humanities’ decline cannot be simplified to one factor alone, but faculty and administrators said they have cause to believe that the humanities at Yale will remain strong.

Classics professor Christina Kraus said she thinks the humanities crisis has been exaggerated, noting that enrollments in the humanities have fluctuated over time in response to numerous factors, including the economy.

“I think we need to be more optimistic about it because I actually don’t think it’s as bad as everyone keeps telling us it is,” Kraus said.

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