What Is Causing the Drop in Humanities Enrollments?


In 2007, when Drew Gilpin Faust became the 28th president of Harvard University, 25% of the undergraduates at the Ivy League school were majoring in the humanities.  Today that number has dropped to 14%.  Right now, only 6% of undergraduates are majoring in the humanities.  There is also a decline at Harvard in students taking classes in the humanities.

Faust relates the drop in the humanities to a surge in “vocationalism.”  Leon Wieseltier says the humanities decline is related to an “instrumentalist” or “utilitarian” culture. Humanities, he argues, is to cultivate citizens.  The humanities have “intrinsic” value.  He argues that the “enormity of the intellectual responsibility that a republic of opinion imposes on ordinary people” requires citizens who can think empathetically and thus contribute to our democracy.  I couldn’t agree more.

Faust and Wieseltier talks about the humanities in this video.  It is execellent–definitely worth your time.

Why are the humanities in crisis?  Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, offers an answer.  Unlike Faust and Wieseltier, he believes the real problem is identity politics.

Bauerlein writes at Minding the Campus blog:

…regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.

First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf.  A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests.  History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest.  If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds.  Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.

Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials.  They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity).  It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues.  They accept them as part of the work, certainly.  But those issues are not the source of inspiration.  The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film.  It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . .  Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.

Is this kind of identity politics keeping students away from the humanities?  Maybe. Perhaps this is the case at Emory or other universities.  I see some of it at Messiah College as well.

But I don’t think this is the primary problem.  I think Faust and Wieseltier understand the real problem.   So does Western Washington University professor Johann Neem, who recently shared this statement on social media:

I agree with Mark Bauerlein that the humanities need to do more than critique. We need to revive words like appreciate, learn, and inspire. BUT, I think his historical causation is wrong. People are not abandoning the humanities because of identity politics, but because of a) the creation of a mass neemuniversity in which many students arrive seeking economic, not intellectual, goods (even at Harvard); b) neoliberal framing of education that treats education as valuable only if it serves economic functions. The humanities, even if they went back to a bygone age, would still be bypassed. We need to take on neoliberalism to save the humanities.

As most of you know, I am a strong advocate of the idea that we need to get students to think about how their historical thinking skills are transferable in the marketplace. At the same time, I am a strong advocate for colleges that train people as citizens for a democracy.  So I agree wholeheartedly with Neem and his vision for the university.   I couldn’t have put it better.

One thought on “What Is Causing the Drop in Humanities Enrollments?

  1. I adore Bauerlein–he’s also senior editor at First Things.


    I think the question is indeed of content–you can get your BA in literature at UCLA without even taking a course in Shakespeare. Much is what is “taught” today in the humanities is disposable.*

    Nobody needs a course in “Breaking Bad” or whatever the flavor of the year is presently. [oh. Zombies.*] This is fraud, and robbery. The scandal in the humanities is graver than those who are purveying them think.

    *such as

    2.) “Wasting Time on the Internet” (University of Pennsylvania)
    This past spring, the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania offered this English course about wasting time online, which involved, among other assignments, watching porn during class. One student told The College Fix that there was no final exam for the class and final projects were optional. However, according to the course description, “Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.”

    3.) “Zombies in Popular Media” (Columbia College, Chicago)
    According to Chicago hip hop station B96 (operated by CBS Radio Inc.):
    …America loves zombies after the premiere of Fear The Walking Dead. “This course explores the history, significance, and representation of the zombie as a figure in horror and fantasy texts. Instruction follows an intense schedule, using critical theory and source media (literature, comics, and films) to spur discussion and exploration of the figure’s many incarnations.” Alright, I guess this is kind of legit if you want to write literature or make movies.

    Read more at http://redalertpolitics.com/2015/12/24/top-5-ridiculous-college-classes-offered-2015/#G7TTPdLGXPLVY4Ji.99


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