On the Slow Death of the Humanities

Should schools be scaling back on the humanities?

In short, the answer is no. First of all, the basic premise here is somewhat incorrect. Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities says that there is no “plummet,” although it is a universal presupposition. Independent school administrators, curriculum planners, teachers, and workers at non-profits, that hypocritically push tech-education in the new spirit of the age, should reconsider their messaging, especially when they largely received humanities or liberal arts degrees themselves.

Bérubé contends that while it is true that English enrollments are down in some places since 2008, and not healthy overall, they are not as bad as the really lean years. Bérubé maintains that students and families keep hearing the myth that English is a dying subject. This humanities ending attitude was just recently reflected in April 2016 when Pennsylvania State Representative Brad Roae (R) proposed ending higher-education grants for students studying “poetry or some other Pre Walmart major.”

Professor Bérubé thinks that this is turning out to be a “zombie belief every bit as hard to kill” as the “plummeting enrollment” zombie belief, and Bérubé is positive that the two beliefs are symbiotic.

According to Politico’s Allie Grasgreen, “liberal arts majors may start off slower than others when it comes to the postgraduate career path, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time, a new report shows.”

Grasgreen goes on to write that “by their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are on average making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates.” But that’s just one component of Grasgreen observations. The concerns about the value of a liberal arts degree are essentially unfounded and should be put to rest, she holds.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities states that “[there is] a myth out there – that somehow if you major in humanities, you’re doomed to be unemployed for the rest of your life. [The research] suggests otherwise.” Grasgreen cited Humphrey’s indication that “we do need more engineers, but we also need more social workers” and that education need not be an “an either-or proposition.”

Grasgreen highlights the report that Humphreys co-authored entitled, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” which includes US Census data from 2010 and 2011. It is a joint project of AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Humphreys, along with researcher Patrick Kelly, looked at long-term career path and salary data as an answer to the myth that liberal arts graduates are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed.

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, remarked that, “it’s a mistake, (to assume a plummet in the humanities) because there is economic value in liberal arts and humanities degrees at the four-year level.” Carnevale goes on to emphasize however, the need to pursue graduate studies when pursuing a liberal arts degree.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has noted the reason for this prevailing wisdom about the prevailing myth regarding the humanities plummet. It’s largely due to mainstream publications. For instance, in 2013 The New York Times featured an essay titled “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” In 2009 American Scholar featured an essay, titled “The Decline of the English Department.” Authors cited spirals in the humanities. Even The Chronicle’s Mark Bauerlein wrote that, “English has gone from a major unit in the university to a minor one.”

The piece goes on to explain how back in 2010 MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall said, “students wanting to take up majors like art history and literature are now making the jump to more-specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse.” This comment was juxtaposed with a chart that indicated a spiral. Prominent New York Times journalist David Brooks also jumped on the bandwagon when he remarked, “The humanities [have] turned from an inward to an outward focus.” The “sky is falling” myth then led to serious under-funding, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bérubé states that “there’s only one problem with [these mainstream] accounts of the decline of the humanities in undergraduate education: They are wrong. Factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong.” He holds that the myth is pervasive and difficult to prevent. There was a plummet, but it was between 1970 and 1980. Bérubé holds that the “drop-off” is inaccurate because it is so dated.

Indeed, most people assume that the selection of certain majors can be blamed for a humanities plummet. The problem with that theory (such as David Brooks’s) is that no such majors existed when the actual plummet commenced years ago. The humanities as a concept is like a popular music band’s record: huge at the time, and after the initial explosion, a steady leveling off in sales, but never a “downward spiral,” “recent shift,” or a “getting worse,” Bérubé argues. English isn’t dying. It’s just that at one time it was dramatically popular. English majors rising from 17,000 to 64,000 over a span of thirty years, from 1940-1970 ultimately resulted in a decline to 34,000 by the 1990s. This does not mark a death to the humanities.

Another real problem (and the real lament) with the humanities has little to do with the numbers. The real problem might be the disagreement among scholars and intellectuals about the priorities of the humanities. Cultural Studies has come under fire from some English purists and it seems like a bad piece of fiction beats a good piece of cultural study.

Bérubé takes issue with New York Review of Book’s Andrew Delbanco who dismissed The Semiotics of Sinatra while juxtaposing it with a title found in a work of fiction, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror, which talked about Captain Cook and the “Other,” in order to dismiss semiotics. According to Bérubé this extends much more broadly. He claims that critics who lamented over: “the gendering of popular morality in certain nineteenth-century novels, the cultural politics of domesticity in a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mother in the Holocaust, Toni Morrison’s feminized historical epic, and so forth,” were undermining the humanities. He is correct.

Are fields like art history and literature, elite, niche-market affairs that will render students unemployable? Are “students abandoning the humanities because they are callow, market-driven careerists?” No. This is not really true. Bérubé states that “undergraduate enrollment in the humanities have held steady since 1980 (in relation to all degree holders, and in relation to the larger age cohort), and undergraduate enrollments in the arts and humanities combined are almost precisely where they were in 1970.”

This is separate from the additional problem with the humanities, and the issue is quite severe. Graduate education in the humanities is underfunded and not because of need, but greed in gobbling up profit and even to promote athletics. Even at many secondary schools, the library would go before the football field, and the coaching staff’s combined salaries are disproportionate to the humanities. Anyway, if the degree had enough legitimacy to preserve a current workforce in their 50s and 60s now, why can’t that remain? Probably because the myth is repeated, and becomes partially true. The humanities are fluctuating, but dying? We repeat this even when the enrollment shows stability.

Should schools double down on the longstanding bet that the humanities offer the best path to deeper learning? Scholars such as Bérubé would say yes, and schools should base this on the fact that lifetime earnings of humanities majors are equal to or greater than that of people with professional degrees. Furthermore, lifelong learning is both financially practical and intellectually rewarding.

I suppose the initial purpose of such a debate in independent schools, or any school is to discuss the role of school. So what is the role in school of philosophy, religion, literature, etc.? Professionals like Bérubé would say that the study of the humanities should constantly remind students that liberal arts are important in order to discuss human values and human relations with the nonhuman world. Schools must oppose what Bérubé would call the “narrow technocratic and instrumental modes of thought.”

Chipping away at the humanities in schools jeopardizes the issues of social justice in education. Arguably, it is safe to say that the humanities and any liberal arts program are undervalued specifically because, Bérubé would say, they involve knowledges, practices, and traditions that usually cannot adhere to immediate short-term use by preservation seeking administrations and teachers. Students, especially women, gay, and people of color, realize however, that there’s a problem with the present, just like the past, and that another world is possible. Elites represent business interests over education. The bi-partisan high-stakes testing culture has also stripped the humanities of its relevance as all secondary schools are now test driven regardless of setting. Obama’s “Race to the Top” hasn’t been any better than Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”.

Critics of the humanities do have a point at some level. Is it necessary to give a close reading on Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology while we still need subjects that emphasize production and outcomes with tangible results? Of course not and yes, Marco Rubio (R) was actually correct when he stated that we need welders. But it is true that we also need philosophers, putting his GOP callousness aside. It is true that some of the liberal arts and humanities is indeed well-intentioned fluff, especially when there are serious crises in the world regarding climate change, nuclear proliferation, and poverty.

Those areas of study need real objective attention and responsible thinkers and not self-serving subjective productions. The problem is that critics on the cynical right obviously do not value these larger issues any more than certain elitists on the left. So yes, there are objective truths and the humanities has room for realists.  

And I understand these sentiments (the perception that the humanities are dying) and concerns completely. I’ve worked at schools where math and science were esteemed, and for good reason. When parents attend school assemblies, the college counselors and deans present course selection mappings. The flow charts for math and science look very impressive, intricate and, complex with many boxes, lines, twists, turns, and explanations that require qualifications. Meanwhile, history and English get a few boxes and they appear straightforward. What is this illustrative of, the fact that more time and energy are dedicated to upholding math and science as gospel? It’s possible.

Moreover, after witnessing regime change in one school, the Advanced Placement offerings in the history department alone swelled from two to seven. Within this breakdown, there was another alarming sign: students overwhelmingly prefer AP Government or Economics (albeit critical disciplines) over any course dealing with take say, Civil Rights. The point is that even within the humanities, there is an extreme effort to quantify them and make them competitive and achievement oriented instead of collaborative, intellectual and enriching.

For example, we had a high level global studies program, mostly devoted to important skills and material acquisition along with a local devotion to well-intentioned think tanks, but this was considered more important than thinking creatively and challenging any process of domination or providing much institutional skepticism. We also had more PhDs on staff in the past interested in intellectual history and English. Now AP courses and reactionary reintroductions to business ethics, personal finance, leadership seminars, formal debate teams, and civics, seem chauvinistically apparent, and most likely to be led by well-trained, highly efficient sports coaches with minimal experience.

We also had widely revered robotics and science clubs. They too created meaningful and neat activities, but not often designed to think critically about institutions or democratization, but strict technological innovation and advancement. Even if a student wanted to research a plan to help people in developing countries avoid unexploded shells or to resist insects or disease, they were seemingly taught to steer clear of western or American policy and its potential role in the creation of the affliction, if it was even considered at all. The disconnect runs deep. Even the drama, music, and the arts exhibit a level of direction following and technocracy while avoiding controversial elements and virtuosity.

The students I speak of did incredible work and possess remarkable levels of curiosity and critical thought in proportion to the hyper-professionalism which may surround them at home and the starchy setting that engulfs them in the school. I am not proud to admit that I have contributed to this.

High school English Departments also remain highly isolated and strict reservations of a particular canon. It’s usually a lily white canon, and of a predictable and boring nature to most students. Furthermore, students are taught to value English class for instilling the technical aspects of writing, an obvious important skill, but really only seen as a quantitative mechanical habit, not a bastion for creative or controversial thought. 

Alfie Kohn and Jonathon Kozol essentially touch on radical pedagogy when they dismantle liberal educators who complain that students are coddled and soft. What we learn is that educational interests are often bi-partisan efforts to glorify adults and their gathered measurements. Students need creativity, intellectual development and the humanities to think about things. Conservatives and liberals alike demand performance in the name of compliance and aptitude and too often we put the curriculum above the students for our own preservation in an effort to satisfy management.

Professor Noam Chomsky states it quite well, when he discusses balancing the humanities when he states that, “People [interested in the humanities] are well intentioned but I think if you look at the roots of it – it’s very cynical. It mostly comes from Paris and I think it mostly has to do with the collapse of French civilization. France has not been able to come to terms with the fact that it’s not a major power anymore.

[Postmodernists] have tried to create one crazy thing after another to try to be exciting, each one more lunatic than the last, and this is one of them. It kind of gives the impression of being serious. Like you use big words and you have complicated sentences and there’s things nobody can understand, so we must be like physicists because I can’t understand them and they can’t understand me.”

Again, thoughtful words from the left, as we need to keep the business model at bay while embracing the humanities and keeping that discipline grounded and conducive to helping people while resisting testing. Test resistance is something that the humanities can inherently bring.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.