Classical Tradition - Humanities

The Humanities – “students are staying away in droves”?

Classical Tradition - HumanitiesI had been collecting links related to humanities enrollments. Just when I was about to discard them, along comes Steven Pinker with Science Is Not Your Enemy. Much has been written about that essay–for a sampling, and my own commentary, see Anthropology Is Your Ally – Science & Humanities Together. However, I have not yet seen anyone challenge Pinker’s notion that “students are staying away in droves.”

Pinker should read his own institution’s report, The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future discussed in Twitter Academia. Certainly there is cause for worry and there have been declining enrollments–although see below for some links that challenge these numbers. However, Harvard gets plenty of initial interest in the humanities. What they have most suffered is the pull of other disciplines. According to figure 11, about 45% have stayed in the humanities. About 50% have gone into what are quite closely-allied social sciences, and only 5% have gone on to major in the natural sciences. That’s hardly a strong natural science magnet, especially when many social science disciplines are also involved in humanities-related endeavors.

More humanities-related links.

  1. The Humanities: What Went Right? by Alexander Beecroft:

    If we ask “What went right?” then new perspectives on the situation of the humanities open up, revealing different paths to the future. The search for what went right might begin at the height of the culture wars. Is it a coincidence that over the past 30 years, the period with the largest percentage of humanities majors was in the early 1990s? Divisive though those debates were, they gave a real urgency to the question of what constitutes the proper field of study for humanists. Perhaps we’ve lost something (including some enrollments) during this past decade or so of informal truce in those wars. Perhaps, instead of trying to return to the golden age of 1967, we should be aiming for 1992, and should bring more, not less, public attention to our internal debates–conducted, one hopes, with civility and from a shared conviction that humanistic inquiry, in all its forms, is a worthwhile activity.

  2. The Humanities in Dubious Battle Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman take on that Harvard Humanities report:

    If you set the baseline farther back, drawing on records that can’t be directly consulted online . . . it turns out that humanities enrollments shot upward and peaked in the 1960s. In the 1940s and 1950s, they were at much lower levels–close to the levels that they returned to around 1990 and have remained at ever since. What we have, then, is not a story of decline, in the humanities as a whole and at Harvard, but one of large-scale fluctuation with a bubble in the middle.

  3. The Real Business of Higher Education by Paul Stoller:

    Although public officials decry the wasteful ivory tower luxury of humanities and social science scholarship and business magazines like Forbes and Kiplinger suggest that majors like anthropology, history, philosophy and art history cannot prepare you for a job, it appears that the “thinking” and “writing skills’ that we teach in our “humanistic” classrooms, are just what our job-seeking students need.

  4. As More Attend College, Majors Become More Career-Focused by Nate Silver:

    I hesitate to generalize too much from my own college experience, at the University of Chicago, but it is a school that emphasizes a broad and general course of study among all its undergraduates. My strategy was to choose a major–economics–that I expected to offer strong career prospects, but then to take as few courses in that field as required, diversifying my curriculum instead.

  5. The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers by Michael Bérubé:

    There’s only one problem with those insistent accounts of the decline of the humanities in undergraduate education: They are wrong. Factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong. I have been trying to point this out for years, using “numbers” and “arithmetic,” but it appears that the decline in humanities enrollments is universally acknowledged. Everyone simply knows that it has happened, just as everyone knows about that feminist who burned her bra while spitting on the soldier returning from Vietnam. Now, as it happens, there was a decline in bachelor’s degrees in English, just as there was a drop-off in humanities enrollments more generally. But it happened almost entirely between 1970 and 1980. It is old news. Students are not “now making the jump” to other fields, and it is not “getting worse.” It is not a “recent shift.” There is no “steady downward spiral.” It is more like the sales of Beatles records–huge in the 60s, then dropping off sharply in the 70s. (h/t Daniel Lende)

  6. The Gates Effect. A special report from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    Gates also comes under attack for what critics describe as an overly prescriptive agenda. “They start with the assumption that something is broken,” says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, which serves low-income women in the District of Columbia. “Then they take the next step of deciding what the fix is before they really understand the problem.” Skeptics say such confidence is dangerous when dealing with complex social phenomena like education.

    I’ve noticed Bill Gates has a peculiar take on his Harvard years and is a fanboy for Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. I’m not surprised at how Gates is approaching education.

  7. Lesson 2: Embrace the Physical. One of three Barnes & Noble Nook lessons from Joshua Kim:

    I’ve always thought that claims that the days of the residential campus experience are numbered are about as ridiculous as claims that physical bookstores will cease to exist. People like learning and living on a campus, and we like browsing and hanging out at a bookstore.

    And this line is also nice: “In higher ed we should be doubling down on our faculty. We should be investing as much resources as possible in recruiting and supporting our scholar educators.”

  8. Scaling Up Efforts to Reach High-Achieving, Low-Income Students:

    One key takeaway from that work is that “low-income students do aspire to go to the best college that will admit them and that they’re able to afford,” Ms. Hoxby said at an event here on Wednesday put on by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. Such students’ enrollment choices, in other words, are the result not of their preferences but of an information gap.

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