Are The Humanities Really In Crisis?

Jordan Weissmann fact-checks the recent worries from David Brooks and Verlyn Klinkenborg:

As The Wall Street Journal noted earlier this month, the number of undergraduates earning degrees in English, foreign languages, history, or philosophy fell by about half between 1966 and 2010. But as shown in this great graph courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the late 1960s were actually a historical outlier, no doubt connected to the sudden flood of baby boomers onto campus. Most of the subsequent drop-off, meanwhile, actually happened in the 1970s. Since then, the humanities have accounted for roughly 6 to 8 percent of all college degrees.

None of this is particularly shocking. The typical college student in 2013 is not the typical college student of 1966. They’re older. There’s a good chance they commute to school, or are taking classes online. And they’re more pre-professional. As an industry, higher education has expanded to cater to them. According to the Department of Education, firefighting, homeland security, and law enforcement majors now make up about 2 percent of all graduates. They barely existed in the 1970s. Health professions now account for almost 8 percent of grads, more than double their share four-decades ago. Suffice to say, the 28-year-old going to school today to finish a B.A. in nursing, or criminal justice, is not the same student who would have been studying Homer in 1972.

Nate Silver backs him up:

The relative decline of majors like English is modest when accounting for the increased propensity of Americans to go to college.

In fact, the number of new degrees in English is fairly similar to what it has been for most of the last 20 years as a share of the college-age population. In 2011, 3.1 percent of new bachelor’s degrees were in English language or literature. That figure is down from 4.1 percent 10 years ago, 4.7 percent 20 years ago, and 7.6 percent 40 years ago, in 1971.

But as a proportion of the college-age population, the decline is much less distinct. In 2011, 1.1 out of every 100 21-year-olds graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, down only incrementally from 1.2 in 2001 and 1.3 in 1991. And the percentage of English majors as a share of the population is actually higher than it was in 1981, when only 0.7 out of every 100 21-year-olds received a degree in English.

Meanwhile, Peter Orszag parses the study that Klinkenborg mentioned, showing that college grads in general are slipping “further down the occupational ladder or out of work altogether.” Recent Dish on the humanities here and here.