What Crisis in the Humanities?

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an article covering the supposed decline in humanities majors, although the evidence for the “crisis” seems chosen to fit the narrative of “crisis in the humanities” rather than the actual facts.

Ben Schmidt at Northeastern University has built an interactive graph of college majors over the past three decades using the best available data he could find. There are some things that become immediately apparent looking at the data, as Ben aptly points out as well. As Ben noted on Twitter, in the last twenty-five years history majors have gone up by 18%, while Math and Computer Science have both seen around 40% decreases in majors. Are these disciplines in crisis? If not, why are the humanities so targeted? Furthermore, as Ben notes, we can see a steep decline in humanities majors in the 1970s, and additionally the baseline for the “crisis” narrative of 1967 was an anomaly.

Interested in how your institution stacks up against the aggregate? Ben’s built that into the visualization as well – I can look at how the Big Ten schools stack up in traditional humanities fields or look specifically at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

We need to reframe the narrative. There certainly are real challenges to the liberal arts, but the hoopla about declining majors or interest among students isn’t one of them.

03 November 2013 · @jaheppler