One frequently hears that the humanities in particular and the “liberal arts” in general are in decline. That’s not accurate, as we’ve joined the likes of James English and David Laurence in arguing here and here.
In this post, we investigate the statistical measure that underwrites this pernicious bit of conventional wisdom. In so doing, we make a discovery that helps explain why the narrative of humanities decline has such widespread appeal. The story of decline is also a disavowal of structural change to U.S. higher education involving massive growth in both number of students and the number of degrees in which they can enroll.
Recently, Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Jeff Selingo joined the crowd in proclaiming that liberal arts’ market share has been taken over by “practical degrees in vocational fields.” He writes,
The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in traditional arts-and-sciences fields (English, mathematics, biology) peaked in the late 1960s, when about half of all degrees awarded were in those disciplines. Today, such majors account for about a quarter of degrees, as students have fled to practical degrees in vocational fields, such as business and communications or, more recently, sports management and computer-game design.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a chart that emphatically illustrates this version of events.
This chart and the contention it illustrates are misleading. They depend on emphasizing percentage of degrees awarded. This particular measure is deceptive in two key ways.
First, percentage of degrees renders invisible the effects of the post-WWII boom in postsecondary education.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 1959-60 there were 392,440 bachelor’s degrees conferred in the U.S. By 2010-11 that number had ballooned to 1,715,913.
The GI Bill, the Pell Grant, and the growth of large state institutions have all driven up the number of students who complete college. The numbers of students majoring in the humanities have risen as well, but this fact gets lost when one only cares about share.
The very Humanities Indicators Project data that the Wall Street Journal excerpts and repackages to produce its alarming downward curve also shows the difference between what happens when one tabulates share of degrees versus degrees overall.
This presentation of the period in question shows both the downward trending percentage and the upward trend in absolute numbers. The latter, obviously, disappears if one only looks at percentage.
Because it renders overall growth invisible, Ben Schmidt explains,
“[P]ercentage of all degrees” is a strange denominator. Taking into account the massive changes in the American university since the Second World War, it’s the resilience of the humanities that should be surprising. If you care about humanistic education, you shouldn’t be worrying about market share inside the university. You should care about the whole population.
Consider the whole population, Schmidt notes, and you will be able to observe that “we give out far more population-normalized degrees in the humanities now than we did in the 1950s or the 1980s.”
To measure the share of degrees without considering the growing number of degrees overall is to ignore how rapid and sustained growth restructured postsecondary education.
The difference between the “NSF” and “CIP” curves in the above chart provides a clue about the quality of this restructuring. Although both measures ultimately rely on the same survey data, they employ different methods of aggregation to measure “the humanities.” As the Humanities Indicators project explains in a note “The utility of the NSF system for the purposes of the Humanities Indicators (HI) is limited” because it does not “include in its tally those degrees conferred in the areas of musicology, art history, film studies, and drama history/criticism,” or, further, “archeology, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, and Holocaust studies.”
Here is a problem every statistician trying to measure “the humanities” must face: What to include? What to exclude? Because there are no government numbers for the humanities as a whole, one must actively decide which parts of the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) to count. There is no way to discover humanities share, in other words, without either asking an array of potentially fractious questions or making a set of questionable assumptions.
It is vital to observe that the problem has only become more complicated in recent decades, as the number of degrees offered by universities and colleges has itself grown substantially.
This is the second way percentage of all degrees is misleading: higher education now engages in a slew of activities it wasn’t even thinking about in the 1950s, and this fact has had huge effects on what counts as “the humanities.”
At midcentury, as Schmidt notes, English, History, Philosophy, and the languages were big players at many schools. Now, although the old core departments remain large ones in most U.S. universities, these legacy degrees face stiff competition not only from majors in social science, STEM, and business, but also from the range of majors that compose a much wider contemporary spectrum of humanities study.
Since the late 1960s, the rise of African and African American Studies, Women’s and Gender and Sexuality Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, Film Studies, and myriad other degrees have created many more choices for undergraduates. Although the survey data does not in itself explain why students choose one degree rather than another, it seems reasonable to conclude that legacy degrees have lost some of their share to these majors, which are likely to be counted as part of the “arts and humanities” (again, depending on the method of aggregation). If the present trends continue, it is possible to imagine a vibrant and expanding “humanities” in which English, History, and Philosophy (for example) have increasingly smaller shares. In any case, the fate of the humanities is not isomorphic with the completion shares of its most established disciplines.
In 1966, the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS) encouraged institutions to report on 399 degree programs, around 60 of which (or about 15%) could be called “arts and humanities” (including history). In 2010, revisions to the CIP brought the total number of reportable programs to 1733, of which “arts and humanities” degrees (including history) numbered around 230 (or about 13%). Instructional programs newly added to the 2010 classification included, for example, Military History, Music Technology, Children’s and Adolescent Literature, and Disability Studies. Importantly, not every instructional program necessarily awards a bachelor’s degree. The complexity of the scheme also testifies to a postsecondary sector offering increasingly multifarious degrees and certificates.
In such a crowded academy, it is impossible for ANY single degree program to retain the shares that History or English could have claimed midcentury. What has happened is not decline, therefore, but increased differentiation.
This transformation may be likened to the changes proliferating channels and distribution systems brought to television: instead of a handful of networks and local stations, now a viewer may choose from hundreds of channels, not to mention YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and all of the various streams both licit and illicit through which “TV” gets consumed. The share of any particular network can only decline in this context, but such decline fails to capture the structural shift.
In one respect, at least, universities and colleges have less to worry about than television producers. Some 90% of U.S. households already had TVs by 1962, which means that although Americans continue to watch more television the room for growth is clearly limited. There may be more upside to bachelor’s degrees: NCES expects significant continued growth through 2021:
If degree share provides a misleading measure because it erases the dramatic change and expansion of postsecondary education, one might well ask why that number proves so important for commentators ranging from Harvard faculty to The Wall Street Journal, Chronicle bloggers, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
The answer can be gleaned from what degree share leaves out, namely that bachelor’s completions are not qualitatively equal, but rather participate in reproducing a professional division of labor that is in some measure meritocratic.
In place of an argument over meritocracy, the decline narrative sets a drama of popularity. It asks us to fret over why students stopped asking “the humanities” to the prom when we should be thinking through the changes that have made diverse humanities disciplines attractive to upwards of 1.5 million undergraduates in the last decade alone. Those changes shape possibilities for students, scholars, and policy makers alike.
The decline narrative needs humanities degrees to appear “unpopular” in order to construe student disinterest as a symptom that commentators can diagnose and remedy. The most common diagnoses these days fault the humanities for being economically impractical or for having lost touch with their lofty mission as a transmitter of core values. Sometimes both.
These two explanations often go hand-in-hand even though they might appear contradictory. If humanities degrees are impractical it follows they could do better if more practically inclined. If humanities degrees have lost touch because they no longer “cultivate the human core” that David Brooks joins D.H. Lawrence in imagining as “‘the dark vast forest,’” then they could regain their former status by keeping practical matters (including politics) at arms length.
Contradictory claims can cohabitate because they share a blind spot. Decline mongers cannot see, or refuse to avow, that humanities degrees contribute expertise to a particular kind of society that needs it, one organized by and through such professionally administered institutions as universities and television networks.
Humanists must know that their teaching contributes to such a society. Even so, since the middle of the twentieth century (at least) many humanists have prefered to explain the value of their endeavor by embracing the project of producing citizens. With this stated goal, the humanities profess to flatten hierarchy and educate everyone while simultaneously generating relatively scarce expert credentials and reproducing meritocracy.
At midcentury, the Redbook explicitly treated these as contradictory aims that institutional practice should work to reconcile. The report recently issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences attempts the same juggling act, but less successfully. Unlike its accompanying promotional video, in which humanist learning promises truth and flowers to all comers, the lengthy report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation,” makes no bones about its administrative brief.
The Academy’s expert panel rhetorical asks:
“Who will lead America into a bright future?”
Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials
and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare ourselves and invest in the next generation to be these enlightened leaders. (2)
Who would begrudge the humanities an opportunity to make such well-rounded citizens, creative workers, worldly security experts, and consensus-oriented politicians? In making these aims appear commensurate, however, the report defers essential questions about where and how to “invest in the next generation.” Should creative workers be the priority, for example, or would focus on those types distract us from the need to produce more diplomats? Is this alternative the same as a choice between funding “the arts” or “languages”–a disciplinary difference that disappears within “the humanities,” but one that would be extremely relevant for institutions, where faculty and students do not inhabit “the humanities” but rather particular disciplines and departments. Of course, this is not necessarily an either-or choice, but it is the type of choice students, faculty, and administrators face. The rhetoric of decline is built to bracket off such details in service of providing a common defence. But is it a defense of a university anyone now actually inhabits?
The difficult work of creating an effective sense of common cause among disciplines well accustomed to competing with one another for scarce resources will require a more realistic acknowledgement of their institutional differences. It is not clear, for example, that the difference between “the humanities” and “the social sciences” looks as stark from the point of view of Women’s Studies, Media Studies, and Anthropology as it does from the point of view of English, Art History, and Philosophy. Nor does it seem likely that the challenge of explaining the value of “the humanities” looks the same in all these fields. The critically important problem of this juncture, it seems to us, is how to coordinating activities of humanist experts not well accustomed to collaborating with specialists in other fields.
The most encouraging parts of the Academy report avoid building a defensive wall around “the humanities,” and look instead to initiatives that enlist different types of experts in common projects. The report seeks to “bring humanists and social scientists together with physical and biological scientists and engineers to address major global challenges such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, universal education, human rights, and the assurance of physical safety” (43-44).
This sort of collaboration would be revelatory, we agree, but it makes no sense absence a clarified vision for humanities specializations and realistic appraisal of the tremendous work required to make such collaboration actually occur.
The report contends that humanists and social scientists are particularly well-situated to consider
• The ethical questions attending the adoption of new technologies;
• The social conditions that provide context for international policy decisions regarding the environment, global health, and human rights; and
• The cultural differences that aid or hinder global security. (44)
All true. But which humanists? And how? Unless one believes that a superficial understanding of ethics, technology, society, human rights, and world cultures is enough, there is a need to ask what combinations of degrees would be most helpful. That there’s more to expert knowledge than narrowly specialist pursuit is self-evident, but humanists will struggle to figure out what version of meritocratic society they want if they ignore the significance of their specializations. And administrators will mistake what “the humanities” have to offer if they continue to focus only on the larger legacy degrees.
Focus on market share obscures such vital questions about how the humanities changed as they increased in numbers of graduates and specializations. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences says it does not want to retreat to the “idealized past” of general education (34). Still, it relies on a narrative of decline in which we have fallen from a past when a few easily corralled disciplines–English, Philosophy, Languages, and History–enjoyed a popularity they now lack. The report acknowledges the fact of meritocratic specialization, but it shuns the challenge of reconciling this fact with lofty rhetoric of a generally “human” (i.e. national) improvement. We must do better. If we agree that investment in humanist postsecondary education makes the world a better place, we need an account that explains how an increasing array of specializations can be expected to satisfy that end.