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I’ve been hearing variations on “crisis in the humanities!” ever since college. Back then it was largely about content; it was the early stages of the “canon” wars. But even then we used to hear, on a regular basis, that fewer students majored in the humanities than used to.

It was mostly measurement error. Humanities enrollments spiked around 1970, then subsided to their historic level by the early 80’s and stayed fairly steady for the next few decades.  The postmodern wave came and went, with no discernible impact on enrollments one way or the other. Narratives of decline that took 1970 as the point of contrast were based on mistaking an aberration for a norm.  If you move the start date back several decades, it becomes clear that the period from about 1965 to 1975 was a fluke. Once enrollments regressed to the mean, the subsequent battles over multiculturalism, cultural studies, postmodernism, and the like didn’t move the needle.

Over the last five years or so, though, the oft-issued warnings have finally started to come true. Enrollments in the humanities and the more qualitative social sciences are dropping, especially in the four-year sector.  (They remain strong in the two-year sector, where they’re heavily represented in general education requirements.)

Benjamin Schmidt, from Northeastern, has a good essay in the Atlantic speculating that the cause of the recent drop is the aftershock of the Great Recession. To which I’ll respond, well, kinda.

Schmidt correctly dismisses some of the usual canards around the narrative of decline. No, feminism and multiculturalism aren’t to blame; enrollments remained steady for decades after they became integral to the enterprise.  No, it’s not about postmodernism; again, basic chronology debunks that.

Schmidt lands instead on fear of unemployability, and the greatly exaggerated differences in employability that undergraduates often imagine.  Economically, on average, you’re no better off with a major in biology than a major in history, but students don’t necessarily know that; they hear “STEM STEM STEM” all their lives, and assume that biology is included.  Schmidt shows his roots as a historian in resorting to a sort of secular Calvinism to explain student behavior; they’re doing the sorts of things that they think economically rational people do. They’re getting it wrong, but the error doesn’t dismiss the motive.  He goes on to lament the pressure that students are under to treat their education instrumentally, in narrowly economic terms. The strongest point of his argument, I think, is in noting that in the military academies, a similar decline has not occurred. In the academies, post-graduation employment is guaranteed.  Where anxiety about post-graduation employment hasn’t increased, humanities enrollment hasn’t decreased. It’s not proof, but it’s consistent with the theory.

I’ll show my roots as a political scientist to raise a partial objection. It’s a myth that humanities majors don’t care about post-graduation employment. What changed was the safety valve of subsequent law school enrollment.

Law school was long the default post-graduation plan for majors in qualitative fields.  As long as you had the prospect of a lucrative legal career after college, you could safely major in English or poli sci.  Those students didn’t ignore the vocational imperative; they just postponed it. And for a long time, that worked pretty well.  

But the Great Recession, combined with AI and offshoring, did a number on law as a career option.  Law school debts kept going up, but the employment picture for new lawyers got abruptly worse. Applications to law school dropped precipitously.  

As interest in law school dropped, we shouldn’t be surprised that many of the pre-law feeders dropped, too.  Poli sci was the classic pre-law major, and it has taken it on the chin, despite a political environment which demands analysis more than any in my adult lifetime.  I’m honestly at a loss when I see sections of American Government only partially filling in 2018; you’d think that it would be the hottest ticket in town. But no.

Having spent time at DeVry during the first tech boom, and the first tech crash, I can attest that trying to time the job market years in advance is a tricky business. (The Chronicle had a decent piece last week on the Bowen report of the late 1980’s, predicting dire shortages of humanities faculty in subsequent decades. If a jobs forecast has ever been more spectacularly wrong, I haven’t seen it.)  Job markets fluctuate with the larger economy, with political changes, with technological shifts, and with all manner of other variables. I’m inclined to believe that some of the more fundamental academic skills -- sorting through lots of partial information, synthesizing it into something coherent, and communicating that synthesis clearly -- will continue to command premiums.  But it’s hard to get a lot more specific than that, especially at the four-year level.

Community colleges have the relative advantage here of being able to focus more on short-term turnarounds.  If a student needs a job in a year or less, this is the place to go. But guessing what will be hot ten years from now is pretty daunting.  There was a time when law seemed like a sure thing. Now, not so much.

So yes, humanities enrollments have declined, and yes, it seems plausible that the recession had a lot to do with it.  But no, it didn’t introduce vulgar economics into the choice of majors. Vulgar economics were always there. The recession simply took away an escape valve, and students responded accordingly.


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