Mismeasuring the Humanities

In the wake of the release of The Heart of the Matter, a report commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that argues for the importance of the humanities and social sciences, and a trio of Harvard reports advocating humanities study, sympathetic voices have come forward to lament a purported decline in humanities study, to assess the cause of such a decline, and to prescribe remedies. Yet, as Ben Schmidt has pointed out, conclusions about trends in humanities degrees need to take into account broader changes in higher education. Citing the percentage of undergraduates receiving degrees in the humanities in, say, 1971, compared with the percentage receiving humanities degrees today omits at least two key parts of the picture.

1. The percentage value for “then” is inflated by the high percentage of women who were, until the 1970s, a semicaptive audience for study in the humanities (and also in education).

For example, in the late 1960s, nearly 12 of every 100 degrees earned by women were in English. For men, the figure was about 4.5 of every 100 degrees. By 1983, just over 4 of every 100 degrees women earned were in English, and the gap in the number of English degrees awarded to women versus men shrank from over 7 of every 100 degrees to less than 2. That is, as women gained entry to professions formerly closed to them, their choice of English as a major came to resemble men’s more closely, and the proportion of degrees they earned in English dwindled.

The other side of the coin appears in business degrees. In 1966, fewer than 3 of every 100 degrees earned by women were in business, compared with 20 of every 100 degrees for men. Twenty years later, in 1986, the figure reached 22 of every 100 degrees for women, and the gap between the rate at which women and men chose business as a field of study narrowed by 12 percentage points (over 70%), from 17 to 5 percentage points.

2. The percentage value for “now” can be artificially depressed if it is calculated using a too-restrictive aggregation for the humanities.

The 7% figure often cited as the percentage of college graduates who majored in the humanities in 2010 reflects a National Science Foundation aggregation that, for example, categorizes art history degrees with the arts rather than with the humanities and degrees in ethnic studies, women’s studies, and other area studies fields with the social sciences. While the assignments are debatable, a percentage value derived from a system that places them all outside the humanities should not be taken simply at face value.

Using a more capacious aggregation that includes academic studies in the arts and in humanities-connected programs in area studies, the Humanities Indicators has created an accounting showing that degrees in the humanities have steadily held a share between 10% and 12% for more than two decades.

A decline in the percentage of humanities degrees earned did occur between 1970 and 1986, but the decline affected all the liberal arts disciplines, not just the humanities, and it was short-lived. The humanities share increased from 1986 to 1990, and since 1990 it has remained unchanged for two decades. Taking the two dates 1966 and 2011 while completely ignoring the middle gives an inaccurate picture.

A numerical decline is not prima facie evidence sufficient to prove there has been a “fall” or “demise.”

A list of articles related to the recent reports appears on the From the President blog.

David Laurence

14 thoughts on “Mismeasuring the Humanities

  1. Pingback: The Summer of Humanities Debates | From the President

  2. Margaret Ferguson

    This is a very thoughtful and enlightening post–thank you, David Laurence! To your important final point I’d just like to add that a numerical decline also doesn’t signal a “crisis.” The very notion of a crisis in the number of undergraduate majors in humanities fields (varyingly defined) may, as Richard Ohmann has suggested, distract public attention from the significance of a different set of numbers that more distinctly shows a pattern of decline– but that is also not really a “crisis” because the decline has occurred over a forty-year period. I refer to the striking decrease in the proportion of college teachers occupying tenured or tenure track positions compared to those in non-tenure track positions. This is a decrease I know you have studied and written about. Though they often perform brilliantly in the classroom, teachers on one-term or one-year contracts cannot provide the kind of continuity of advising and teaching that prospective majors in all fields so often desire. The effects on students of having a majority of literature and language teachers in non tenure track positions have not (to the best of my knowledge) been carefully measured. Could those effects be assessed, in your view, and if so, with what kind of research tools?

    1. Profile photo of David LaurenceDavid Laurence Post author

      The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success has produced an annotated bibliography Selected Research on Connections between Non-Tenure-Track Faculty and Student Learning. One difficulty facing arguments around institutional staffing practices and student learning has to do with the habit of reducing teaching to individual classroom performance, when the problem may be located least in the classroom per se and most in larger ecological contexts for teaching and learning. It is easier to make a case that broad-scale use of part-time faculty members compromises the ability for members of a faculty to work collectively on units–a degree program, for example–larger than any single instructor’s separate, individual course. Placed on that basis, does the argument push us to think about how faculty members in every tenure and employment status imagine the relation between the course and instructional units larger than the course?

  3. Profile photo of Roland GreeneRoland Greene

    As usual, David’s reframing of the issue in light of research is impeccable. As several other voices have observed in recent days, the humanities are not in decline. Naturally, the particular fields represented by the MLA have experienced various fluctuations in enrollment and visibility. I know that in the institutions where I’ve worked, there are considerably fewer English majors now than there were a generation ago (and a far greater percentage of those are primarily interested in creative writing), while comparative literature seems to me healthier now than it was twenty years ago. Everyone will have a perspective from his or her field and institution, but we should keep in mind that the overall picture for the humanities has remained steady.

    Nonetheless, the larger question lurks: given the persistently obtuse reception for literary study in the general culture, how should those of us in these fields make a freshly compelling case for what we do? We can set the numbers straight, but there’s something else, a matter of perceptions in which we’re not winning even when the research is on our side. This is a topic that I (and I hope others) will try to address in response to Marianne Hirsch’s post on “The Summer of Humanities Debates” in the From the President blog.

  4. Profile photo of Vimala C. PasupathiVimala C. Pasupathi

    I appreciate this post–really I do–but I can’t help but feel like these arguments still won’t make headway with administrators who are determined to reallocate lines. See, for instance, this post: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/provost-prose/switching-modes. In my experience (which I’ve been writing about on MLA Commons), those in positions of power tend to dismiss any arguments that protest cutting lines–or worse still, don’t appear to read or care about them–on any grounds. That is to say, even if we have statistics and number-based arguments with sound evidence, it can be a losing battle despite the time and effort faculty pour into constructing them. I hate to be defeatist, but even though I believe that the metrics to demonstrate enrollment declines are not produced in good faith, I think the same bad faith will prove stronger than any evidence to the contrary.

    My own department and many other bodies of faculty and administrators in an appeals board have “ma[d]e the case” for my tenure/retention and recommended it, but the upper admin refuse to engage with arguments. Our contract, which has language about “long range and essential needs,” allows for tenure denials based on declines, even if the declines can be explained as they are here. My school even has a union, and the labor lawyer the AAUP chapter retains has confirmed that there’s no viable law suit given the criteria as they are listed. It may be that my university is exception in having such a clause, but my understanding is that what we have listed is not particularly rare. Rather than feel heartened and bolstered by what we know, I think faculty need to look to their contracts and see if similar language exists before they conclude they can make a case to retain resources and protect junior members of their departments…

  5. Tim McCormick

    I’m puzzled why US enrollment numbers, however interpreted, would be considered an adequate index of the state of the “humanities.” This seems to me a case of the “streetlight effect”, orienting inquiry around what happens to be easily observable; and the type of narrow, quantifying approach I’d hope humanists would try to put in a broader and deeper context. I might also ask why we’d equate “the humanities” with US humanities academia, which is only a portion, probably diminishing in share, of the whole picture.

    Taking a historical view, Geoffrey Galt Harpham observes in “The Humanities and the Dream of America” (2011) that the institution of “humanities” so named is primarily a post-WWII US construction, and has been almost *constituted* by a perennial question of definition, of role, and a “crisis of rationale,” as Louis Menand called it. Michael Bérubé and other have similarly observed the apparent evergreen nature of the humanities’ withering; as the title of a documentary about US political consultants in Latin America put it, “Our Brand Is Crisis.”

    That said, there are real reasons to ask if the “humanities,” as some complex of values and practices we may wish to sustain, is in real threat or decline today. But it’s a much more complex question than one of enrollment. I think we’d want to consider, for example, funding patterns: in 1979, federal science grants were 5 times those for humanities; by 2011, 200 times as great (cf. http://hvrd.me/11MYwbo); or that the White House announces policies for all public research through the office and terms of Science and Technology. Or what I think is a quite remarkable development, that the US is about to change immigration policy specifically to grant STEM (Scientific, Technical, Engineering, Medical) greater access to US residency and citizenship.

    We might look at the makeup of popular reading, even using mass corpus analysis like Google Ngram Viewer to compare across centuries; or we could analyze the content of presidential speeches, the Congressional record, or the last few decades of popular media as recorded in archives like Internet Archive. We might also wonder, as does the NY Times article quoting Russell Berman, what will be the effect of world economic/cultural/scholarly influence shifting to East Asia: which has its own and emerging “humanities” traditions, possibly even ascending in importance.

    In short, a good response to this latest questioning of the humanities, in my opinion, is not to reflexively state that they’ve valuable, or look only at the readily quantified, or look under the streetlights because it’s where we usually/easily see. It would be to demonstrate the ability to inquire far-sightedly into and integrate a wide set of perspectives and indicators, and not just circle wagons. Rather than accepting dominant frames, such as skills development or enrollment figures or graduate earnings — show how to tack against prevailing winds with broader perspectives. In a world obsessed with capability and measurability, there’s all the more need for Keats’ ‘negative capability’ of unbounded spirit/thought — which finds wider frames, and is ultimately the greatest human value.

    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick tjm.org Palo Alto, CA

  6. Pingback: On Mismeasuring the Humanities, or not measuring at all | Tim McCormick

  7. Pingback: What’s in a Number? MLA Commons Posts on Measuring the Humanities | News from the MLA

  8. Totosy de Zepetnek, Steven

    to me the discussion about whether graduates in literature or in the humanities in general are descreasing is neither here nor there; important is to have a discussion as to how to make the study of literature socially relevant incl the issue of employment whether from an undergraduate or graduate degree and this issue is rarely if ever discussed and so for a number of reasons incl the insistence on the closed nature of scholarship with regard to literature, the misguided behavior of many tenured professors, etc. here is something to ponder:
    “With regard to the larger context of the humanities, there has been much discussion about the “corporate university” (see, e.g., Donoghue; Garber; Ginsberg; Hacker and Dreifus; Menand; Nussbaum; Readings; Taylor). While the move towards the implementation of the corporate university has a number of negative aspects affecting humanities scholarship (e.g., in Europe and Asia the copying of “metrics”/”impact factor” from the sciences with regard to publications and tenure, promotion, and the research of funding and the move towards private funding with the implication of conflict of interest [on “metrics”/”impact factor” see Tötösy de Zepetnek, “The ‘Impact Factor'”]), humanities scholarship performed in comparative cultural studies could serve to counter some of the negative perceptions in the administrative and funding practices of the corporate university towards humanities scholarship. That is, if humanities scholars think, research, publish, and teach with and within the paradigm of the social relevance of humanities scholarship and pedagogy, a more equitable outcome could result than the habitual sidelining of the humanities. In connection with the tenure debate, in the West a continuous debate persists about tenure and its value and process and it is no secret that too many professors—once they have obtained tenure (we are referring to research universities where research and teaching are evaluated together and not to universities where only teaching is required for tenure)—reduce their work with regard to research and publications either because with tenure they are safe in their position and/or because of their administrative work load (see, e.g., Rubenstein and Clifton; the survey was conducted in the U.S. and Canada). We believe that to make the study of literature and culture a socially relevant activity of scholarship we ought to do contextual work parallel with regard to professional concerns such as the job market, the matter of academic publishing, and digital humanities and, put more broadly, with regard to the role of social, political, and economic aspects of humanities scholarship. Hence our proposal that with the comparative and contextual approach—practiced in interdisciplinarity and employing new media technology—comparative cultural studies could achieve in-depth scholarship and the social relevance of the humanities” (Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven, and Louise O. Vasvári. “About the Contextual Study of Literature and Culture, Globalization, and Digital Humanities.” Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literatures, and Comparative Cultural Studies. Ed. Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Tutun Mukherjee. New Delhi: Cambridge UP India, 2013. Forthcoming).

    totosy de zepetnek, steven phd professor
    purdue university & purdue university press


  9. Christine Henseler

    What I too find most worrisome about the data-driven articles about the humanities is that they are determining how the nation is speaking about the value of the humanities in today’s day and age. And this how is driving administrative and political decisions.

    As a community, we need to stop feeding into the quantification of the humanities and begin to change the national discourse toward qualitatively different conversations. As a community we need speak up and out about who we are, what we do, and why we do it. We need to work as a community to write articles and create campaigns that ultimately outnumber the pieces that are currently published about the humanities. And most importantly, we need to involve the many friends and supporters we have in all fields. Let’s involve our colleagues in Engineering, Computer Science or Biology to talk about why humanistic studies are essential in the twenty-first century. And let’s get the CEO’s, the physicians and the lawyers to speak up about how their humanistic educations have made a difference in their professional lives (see http://www.humanitiesintheworkplace.weebly.com for an example of this).

    If there is a crisis in the humanities, it is that we have not done a good enough job articulating the value of our disciplines to the world. Our value does not reside in numbers, but our numbers in terms of supporters, can make a huge difference in changing the national discourse about the humanities.

  10. Pingback: Mismeasuring the Humanities | tales of a librarian

  11. Sir Gareth

    After reading all of the above comments I cannot help but believe that ‘the crisis in humanities’ is focused on careerism and tenure. The larger question of what ‘the humanities’ are and what value do they have appears to go unanswered.


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