Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bérubé on the Recent Precipitous Decline in the Study of the Humanities

Using some of that fancy science, engineering and trade-school stuff that is all anyone actually really needs (or wants!) to study these days, Michael Bérubé* has studied the recent decline in students studying the humanities and discovered that... wait for it... it doesn't exist:
" 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.” So things are getting worse? Really? No, not really... Compared to 17.4 percent in 1967, yow! We are totally in trouble! … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent. And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now....

The real story should be this: amazingly, remarkably, counterintuitively and bizarrely, humanities majors in the United States, as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, have held steady since about 1990—since the onset of the culture wars, in fact. Despite all the attacks on our Piss Christ this and our queerying that and our deconstructing the Other; despite all the parents and friends and journalists and random passersby telling students they’ll be consigned to a life of selling apples and flipping burgers if they major in English; despite the skyrocketing of tuition and the rise of the predatory private-student-loan industry; despite all this, humanities enrollments have been at or about the 8 percent mark for about twenty years. However, because we continually tell ourselves that we have fallen–
O how fall’n! how chang’d
From them, who in the happy Days of Rage
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
All the other undergraduate programs on Campus
–even though the fall (a) stopped happening 20 years ago and (b) followed an anomalous high point in the history of American higher education, we keep playing into the hands of the people who want to cut us ‘til they kill us.

(Quotation from here; link via Gerry. The ellipsis between "totally in trouble!" and "except that" is Bérubé's, and does not signify an actual omission; all the other ellipses are mine.)

Update: See also Yglesias. I too have long thought that humanities were perfectly defensible in purely utilitarian, bottom-line terms of economic usefulness (although I also take very seriously the non-commercial, non-practical arguments for them too).

* And really, a name with two accents: how can he not be a communist? Or maybe French. It's all the same thing, right? Wasn't De Gaulle a communist? No? Then I guess he wasn't French, right?

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