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Everyone keeps talking about the demise of the humanities. There is a veritable cottage industry dedicated to writing about their downfall. Little of this chronicling of the purported death of the humanities in the U.S. analyzes data beyond the numbers that match the narrative. A closer look reveals a more complex story. The numbers are not developing uniformly at all institutions across the country.
One place where the numbers of humanities majors are not falling is my institution, Lehman College in the Bronx, a four-year college that is part of the City University of New York. Instead of a decline, Lehman College’s enrollment in School of Arts and Humanities majors has increased over the last 10 years, from 918 in fall 2011 to 1,239 in fall 2021 (the peak was in fall 2020, with 1,316 arts and humanities majors).
During that same time, the number of degrees awarded in the arts and humanities has grown, from 242 in 2011–12 to 385 in 2020–21, though the growth has not been as strong as in other areas such as health sciences and business. Many more students are minoring in arts and humanities fields, and everyone is taking humanities classes as part of general education.
Most of the articles in this discussion, notably a certain recent article in The New Yorker on “The End of the English Major,” focus primarily—though not exclusively—on elite institutions (Arizona State University, Harvard University, Vassar College, Columbia University). In reporting an extreme drop in humanities enrollment—in some cases more than 50 percent—articles of this ilk largely ignore institutions with different experiences.
Statistics, so we are told, is the new common language of academia. As a literature professor who is now an administrator, I have learned to apply critical thinking to numbers as well. Not all numbers tell the same story. The number of degrees in the humanities fell by 14.1 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2018, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. While this is a significant drop, it is considerably less than the 50 percent drop that the New Yorker article focuses on. Why not look at institutions that are not experiencing this kind of free fall in enrollment in the humanities? If the decline is 14 percent overall, and 50 percent in some cases, then it follows that it must be much less than 14 percent in others. A statistical statement is only as strong as the data it uses and only as reliable as its analysis.
Many possible reasons for the decline in humanities enrollment are mentioned in these discussions: a general atmosphere in society and politics that considers the humanities useless and discourages students from majoring in them, a push toward STEM fields in both student recruiting and campus investments, and the development of our digitized world, which offers so many different ways of accessing information and entertainment that sustained reading is no longer attractive. With all these forces working against the humanities, it is a miracle that any student still chooses these majors.
Still, students at institutions like Lehman College make these choices. We are a minority-serving and a Hispanic-serving institution, primarily enrolling first-generation students, and most of our students are immigrants or the children of immigrants, who, so the stereotype says, are ill inclined toward a degree in the humanities. Instead, we’ve created a dynamic, lively home for the humanities, and it shows. The campus is alive with student poetry events, theater performances and art shows. Students are supported with graduate school applications and fellowships. In a new program funded by the Teagle Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, students focus on discussing great texts from all over the world and from their cultural heritage to tackle big questions. In art and English classes, they embrace traditional forms as well as new technologies and learn to work with gaming as well as with social media. A class in Latin American studies takes place in a different museum or theater each week.
In their humanities classes, Lehman students have transformative experiences that prepare them for a career as well as for life. They discover themselves as active participants in history. They interact with each other while developing a sense of their place in the world. This process is integral to the development of effective leadership in our diverse, democratic society.
Our students know how challenging life can be and have experience with precarity. They also know about the transformative power of a humanities education, which not only helps them connect to their identities, but also prepares them for the leadership positions they are going to take on in their careers.