Ben Schmidt: The Exaggerated Crisis in the Humanities

tags: digital humanities, Harvard, humanities, Ben Schmidt, Edge of the American West



Ben Schmidt is the visiting graduate fellow at the Cultural Observatory at Harvard University.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about falling enrollments in the humanities disciplines. The news hook is a Harvard report about declining enrollments in the humanities; the moral they draw is that humanities enrollments are collapsing because the degrees don’t immediately lend themselves to post-graduate jobs. (Never mind that the Harvard report makes clear that the real competition is with the social sciences, not the 1% of humanities-curious first-years who major in computer science).

But to really sell a crisis, you need some numbers. Accompanying the story was a graph credited to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing a spectacular collapse in humanities enrollments. I made one of the first versions of this chart working on the Academy’s Humanities Indicators several years ago. And although it shows up in the press periodically to enforce a story of decay, some broader perspective on the data makes clear that the “Humanities in crisis” story is seriously overstated.

First of all, the chart never quite reinforces the point that something terrible is going on in the humanities right now. Anyone looking closely will notice, as Michael Bérubé has, that the real collapse of humanities enrollments happened in the 1970s. There is small lull in the Great Recession, but enrollments dropped more in the mid-1990s. Sure, a few Harvard majors have switched from history to government in the last decade: how much should any of us be worrying about that?...



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