Statisticians have long predicted the decline of the humanities, but the field has seen a recent resurgence.
For decades, the warning bell has rung: scholars have proclaimed that the humanities are endangered. In 1964, J. H. Plumb’s “Crisis in the Humanities” volume warned that a science-centered world would leave no room for artistic expression. The November 1975 issue of the College English Association warned of the humanities’ future extinction.
Then came the ‘80s, when humanities degrees became more popular, yet the talk of humanities solely focused on its death. There is a long history involved with the retreat of the humanities, leaving it with a “boy who cried wolf” reputation as academia and articles treat its dropping numbers with trepidation.
Now, these warnings have become more real. Since the 2008 financial crisis, numbers of almost every major in the humanities have seen a rapid drop, according to the Department of Education. The Atlantic writes, “History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s.” Meanwhile, at elite research universities, the share of humanities has dropped from 17 percent a decade ago to 11 percent this year.
Declines have not stabilized with the economic recovery. There is a troubling new priority students form before they even step foot on a college campus: finding a practical major. This mindset exists because our generation feels the mark left behind by the Great Recession; we were children when we watched the American population lose jobs and homes. There are external factors, too, like a concerned parent pushing their child into a STEM or business field. A promise of financial security is crucial for many students, which is reflected in the decline of the humanities.
The Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA released a long-running survey of trends in American freshmen spanning fifty years. The study observed that the most popular reason for going to college was to find a better job. Twenty years before the 2008 recession, the top goal was to learn things that were personally interesting and enriching.
The recent decline is particularly severe at liberal arts colleges and other elite schools. According to the Atlantic, the humanities majors at selective liberal arts colleges “have fallen from a third to well under a quarter of all degrees.” The increase in “practical” majors are overwhelming in comparison.
The Department of Education finds that in 2016, the most popular majors at the University of Tulsa were petroleum engineering at 9.5 percent of students, mechanical engineering at 7.4 percent and general finance at 7.4 percent. Comparatively, English holds 1.4 percent and general history has 1.7 percent. There is an evident discrepancy between humanities found at TU, and as a distinguished liberal arts college, this is worrying.
However, there may be hope. The Trump administration seems to have broken an apathy barrier, where engagement in politics has dramatically increased, according to Quartz. The Brexit decision has also helped garner awareness for the applicability of the soft sciences that shape our understanding of the world. Yale Daily News reported that history was the top declared major for the class of 2019. For the first time in years, the rush out of humanities disciplines may have slowed.
Humanities will survive, even if these majors do not match the social prestige of hard sciences in American higher education. The place of humanities might be uncertain, but that means that the decisions and rhetoric around the subject are more critical than ever, as we must decide what is important to us as students of a liberal arts college.