Last semester, Japanese Literature professor Edward Kamens, then the acting director of the Whitney Humanities Center, noticed a consistent refrain in conversations with professors — and it wasn’t particularly uplifting.

Those with whom Kamens spoke, he recalled, were concerned about drops in humanities enrollment, particularly in history, art history and philosophy.

So Kamens organized a conference.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler and professors from a variety of humanities departments put their heads together to find a solution. But in the end, only one common ground of agreement could be found: There is a problem.

“We agreed to continue to monitor the situation,” Kamens said laughing.

But data on humanities enrollment released by the University over the last 20 years tells a different story from the sharp decline seen by some of the professors: a mosaic of small ups and downs from year to year, with stabilizing enrollments after a 10-year period of steep decline. And some of the smaller humanities departments are even thriving.

Professors said increasing student interest in more career-focused majors and complacency on the part of humanities departments have perpetuated the declining enrollments for years. “I don’t think they’ve done a very good job on the whole of making the case for themselves,” political science professor Steven Smith said.

Now, faculty members are scrambling to reverse the trend — reaching out to individual students and even, Salovey said, talking hypothetically about implementing minors to promote secondary study in the humanities.

Smaller but growing

Data compiled by the Office of Institutional Research indicates that between 1986 and 1996 undergraduate course registrations in humanities departments declined from over 50 percent of all undergraduate course registrations to just over 40 percent. But since then, registrations have stabilized, and last year humanities course registrations still accounted for over 40 percent of all courses taken at Yale.

University-wide, humanities majors still make up a plurality — about 37 percent — of all majors, although social-science majors are close behind at about 35 percent. That is a stark difference from 1986, when social-science majors made up just 25 percent of all undergraduates, and humanities majors comprised just under 50 percent of the College.

But since 1996, when social-science majors constituted about 32 percent of undergraduates, growth in the social sciences has stabilized.

Within individual, smaller humanities departments, some professors are even seeing a rise in enrollments. Kamen’s department, East Asian Languages and Literatures, had 1,055 course registrations last year, the culmination of a steady rise in enrollments since 1995, when there were 695.

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Chair John Darnell said his department has seen across-the-board growth in both the ancient and modern fields since the late 1970s, and that he expects the growth to continue in the coming years.

In 1979, there were 206 undergraduate course registrations in NELC. And after up-and-down fluctuations throughout the last 30 years, the department recorded 556 course enrollments last year.

And although course enrollments in the Religious Studies department have remained relatively constant over the last 10 years, the number of students choosing to major in religious studies has seen significant growth in just the past four years.

Forces outside of Yale

Nationwide, of course, humanities subjects are much less popular.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that over 307,000 bachelor’s degrees in business were conferred in 2004, out of the total almost 1.4 million bachelor’s degrees earned that year. Just over 42,000 of the bachelor’s degrees were in the liberal arts or sciences, over 11,000 were in philosophy, and about 54,000 were in English language or literature. However, the NCES counted history as a social science, while the University considers it a humanities discipline.

Professors said that Yale’s reputation as a national leader in humanities scholarship and dedication to the liberal arts has protected it from the brunt of the departures, but that it is not wholly immune to outside forces luring students away toward majors that seem more pragmatic.

“Yale has been somewhat of a preserve against seeing undergraduate education in pre-professional terms,” Fraade said.

But, Fraade added, “Yale students don’t live in a vacuum, and given the price of the education and the uncertainties in the economy, the desire to be able to support yourself and make a decent living after graduation is less of a luxury.”

Other possible explanations for the decline that were identified at the fall-semester meeting, Kamens said, are the increasing number of international students accepted each year at the undergraduate level. Such students may come from a background that encourages more pre-professional study, Kamens said.

In fall 2007, 143 freshmen entered Yale, second only in number to the year before, when 148 did. As a whole, this year’s international freshmen make up almost 11 percent of the freshmen class.

“That’s a good thing, but it could have some relation to the pattern we’re seeing,” Kamens said. “There’s a strong anecdotal sense that international students, generally speaking, are more risk-averse. International parents might have relatively more conservative goals for their students.”

But English department DUS Lawrence Manley disagreed with the premise that humanities majors are less pragmatic or lucrative.

“It’s completely unjustified — the perception that the humanities are not economically viable,” Manley said. “Maybe we aren’t getting the word out about the value and importance of the humanities at Yale, and we could do a better job of that.”

The English department plans to do so, Manley said, by having a series of meetings in the coming two weeks for students considering the English major. One meeting, he said, will even feature four or five recent Yale English alumni who have succeeded in the worlds of venture capitalism, law and education.

Manley also said the English department — which has seen a steady decline in the number of majors it has enrolled since 2001, from 238 junior and senior majors to 157 last year — plans to put a renewed focus on advising undergraduates, something some students have identified in the past as a weakness in the major.

More than ‘just a few bromides’

While two of the six largest majors at Yale, English and history, are humanities disciplines, some professors in the humanities said they worried that the new undergraduate curriculum — proposed in the 2003 report of the Committee on Yale College Education and first implemented for the class of 2009 — may have lessened the emphasis on the humanities.

Under the previous system, two of the four designated curricular “groups” encompassed languages, literature and other humanities. Thus, half of students’ distributional requirements — three courses in each group — were mandated to be humanities courses.

Now, students are required, among other courses, to take only two courses in the humanities distributional group as well as at least one course in foreign language. But because students can fulfill the writing skill requirement by taking a WR-designated course in a social science or biological science, for example, professors say students could drift away from English courses.

But Salovey said there is no evidence to suggest that the new requirements are reducing the number of students in humanities courses.

“It’s not clear that the new curriculum has dramatically affected enrollment,” Salovey said.

One possible solution that was discussed at the fall meeting, Kamens and Salovey said, is the adoption of minors in Yale College, or even a certification system for languages. But Kamens said that proposal is not currently being discussed very seriously at a faculty level.

Some professors both inside and outside of the humanities place the blame for any decline not on outside social forces but on Yale’s departments themselves.

For example, some of the lack of awareness on the part of undergraduates may be the result of a departmental unwillingness to advertise, Fraade said.

“This is a Yale thing in general. It’s sort of a reverse snobbishness, that we shouldn’t have to advertise, that people will know to find us,” he said. “There’s a sense of not going door-to-door, of not sending out mass e-mails that might seem a little crass.”

Fraade said this semester he contacted the approximately 200 sophomores who had taken any religious studies course in their three semesters at Yale with information about the department and received many positive responses.

Smith said if the current slight decline in the humanities turns out to be a long-term trend, departmental complacency may be to blame.

“That forces people to talk about questions like ‘What is the value of a humanistic education?’ he said. “I don’t mean just a few bromides — they need to, in a very serious way, address those questions.”