When Steve Brier pointed the class to yet another piece in the news about the “crisis in the humanities,” I joked out loud to a colleague about whether the headline was from today or from thirty years ago, because the humanities have a reputation for crisis that won’t quit. In 1980, Newsweek ran a story about the “sorry state” of the humanities, based on a Rockefeller Foundation report. This was perhaps more apt at that time because, according to historian Ben Schmidt, who has written a series of blog posts on the subject of humanities enrollments, “the real collapse of humanities enrollments happened in the 1970s.” Humanities enrollments have recovered and leveled off since that time. Working with data that he hand-transcribed from paper printouts, Schmidt argues convincingly that “long term results actually show that since 1950, only women have shown a major drop in the percentage of humanities majors.” And, “Before co-education, only about a tenth of pre-professional degrees went to women: after 1985, they were half. And since the whole puzzle is how women’s behavior changed, not how men’s majors changed, this tells you most of what you need to know.” Schmidt also refers to an Atlantic article showing that humanities majors have the same employment level as computer science majors.
Instead of repeating shibboleths about the crisis in humanities enrollments, journalists should examine the data.
Addendum: After I posted this, Ben Schmidt tweeted, “History majors are up 18% the last 25 years. Math and CS are down 40%. Can we put this media narrative to rest?” The tweet includes a link to his dynamic graph from 1986 to 2011 to view majors from all disciplines (group together your definition of humanities fields), by gender, and by institution. In Schmidt’s guest post at the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year, there is a link to a fun Google Books Ngram of the “crisis in the humanities.”