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