Drew Gilpin Faust does a reasonably good job of defending the study of the humanities in this brief interview, especially after interviewer Tamron Hall’s second question puts the concepts of “critical thinking” and “imagination” on the table. But I have to say that the whole thing gets off to a false start—no, wait, hold the phone, make that two false starts.
The second false start is the opening of Faust’s response to the first question, which raises the likely possibility that the “perhaps the occupation of an art historian won’t pay the bills.”
Well, I think that the issue of jobs is sometimes misunderstood by students. We have many Harvard undergraduates who did major, as we say at Harvard concentrate, in the humanities who’ve gone on to be very prosperous and to be very successful in fields like business and a wide range of professional fields. So what you study as an undergraduate is not necessarily the path that you will follow professionally once you leave school. And in fact humanities majors, a wide range of liberal arts majors, prepare you very well for a variety of different fields. So I think students need to understand that as they make their choices as undergraduates.
If you’re trying to defend the humanities across the board, you obviously don’t need that second sentence, because everyone knows that Harvard undergraduates can go on to be very prosperous and very successful even if they concentrate in basketweaving. (Some have even become famous bloggers!) There is no economic penalty for studying French or art history at Harvard—or at small liberal arts colleges like Williams or Grinnell, for that matter. And so when language programs are targeted for layoffs and closures, the odds are that those programs won’t be at Harvard, and the “but a Harvard degree is still a passport to $ucce$$” defense won’t play very well at SUNY-Albany or LSU. Saying “the issue of jobs is sometimes misunderstood by students” and then following simply with the arguments that one’s major does not determine one’s career and that liberal arts graduates are well-prepared for a wide variety of jobs should suffice; adding the Harvard bit will only (a) distract from the question of the value of the humanities more generally and (b) paradoxically give fuel to the people who believe that most universities should become trade schools, like John McWhorter,* who was predictably contrarian in that New York Times forum on the Albany closings.
But as for the first false start: once more with feeling, the entire premise of the segment is wrong. Here’s Tamron Hall’s intro: students are “now making the jump to more specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse. Just look at this: in 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.” So things are getting worse? Really? No, not really, not even according to the graphic MSNBC put up at the :13 mark (data source: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). Go ahead, look at it again. I’ll wait right here. Compared to 17.4 percent in1967, yow! We are totally in trouble! … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent. And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now.
I’m sorry, everyone. I know I’ve gone on and on about this in recent years, especially when I have to deal with people who claim that humanities enrollments declined in “recent decades” because of icky things like “theory” and “racial and sexual identity,” or cranks who try to blame that nonexistent enrollment decline on “a virulent strain of Marxist radicalism” (hey, if you thought the virulent Marxism was bad, just wait ‘til we institute Shari’a law!). But I just don’t know of any realm of human endeavor in which a precipitous decline from 1967 to 1987, followed by a couple of decades of stability, counts as breaking news. It’s the equivalent of saying “sales of Sgt. Pepper posters have declined sharply since 1967,”** and trying to pass it off as tonight’s lead story. But for some reason, when it comes to the humanities, it works every time.
The real story should be this: amazingly, remarkably, counterintuitively and bizarrely, humanities majors in the United States, as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, have held steady since about 1990—since the onset of the culture wars, in fact. Despite all the attacks on our Piss Christ this and our queerying that and our deconstructing the Other; despite all the parents and friends and journalists and random passersby telling students they’ll be consigned to a life of selling apples and flipping burgers if they major in English; despite the skyrocketing of tuition and the rise of the predatory private-student-loan industry; despite all this, humanities enrollments have been at or about the 8 percent mark for about twenty years. However, because we continually tell ourselves that we have fallen–
O how fall’n! how chang’d
From them, who in the happy Days of Rage
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
All the other undergraduate programs on Campus
–even though the fall (a) stopped happening 20 years ago and (b) followed an anomalous high point in the history of American higher education, we keep playing into the hands of the people who want to cut us ‘til they kill us.
Two final points on this. One old one, which I first made in 1999 and then made again in Rhetorical Occasions in 2006: the decline of humanities enrollments was not simply a decline of the humanities.
… between 1974 and 1985, humanities enrollments did, in fact, decrease by 18.2 percent. But enrollments in the social sciences fell much further, by 33.7 percent, and even in the physical sciences the drop was a considerable 19.4 percent. Where did those students go? To business (a 65.3 percent increase), engineering (up by 92.2 percent), and computer science (a staggering, but altogether historically appropriate, increase of 627.3 percent). Interestingly, between 1986 and 1997 business majors underwent a dramatic decline: in 1986 they accounted for 24 percent of all degrees awarded (237,319 out of 987,823), whereas in 1997 they had slipped to 19.3 percent of all degrees (226,633 out of 1,172,879).
And one new one, about which I just learned (je viens d’apprendre) last month: apparently many furren-language majors in the U.S. are double majors. But there is no reliable reporting on double majors, so any “program review” that concludes that students just aren’t taking furren languages from Othercountriestan will tend to undercount students doubling in Mechanical Engineering and German, or International Law and French.*** Worth keeping in mind next time the budget axe comes swinging your way.
* Interestingly, McWhorter got his bachelor’s degree in French (Rutgers) before earning an M.A. in American Studies (New York University) and a Ph.D. in linguistics (Stanford). All of which goes to show that Drew Faust is right: you can major in French and still go on to become a very successful professionally licensed contrarian who responds to the Albany closings by writing, “Imagine a situation where humanities departments are a selling point for certain schools, while most colleges and universities move in the direction of being essentially trade schools. This would require a change of lens: instead of bemoaning that undergraduates seek majors based on employability, we would see this as the norm.” You certainly can’t predict someone’s career path based on their major alone!
** An astute observer of “popular” “culture” suggested to me that sales of Sgt. Pepper posters might have spiked briefly in the mid-1990s after the release of the Beatles’ Anthology series began the long-term rehabilitation of the Beatles’ reputation, which the solo careers of the Fab Four had done so much to diminish. I directed this astute observer to the spike in the MSNBC graph, which shows an increase in humanities enrollments around 1995-96 and almost certainly corresponds to slightly more vigorous Sgt. Pepper poster sales around that time. I choose my analogies carefully, you know.
*** We are not supposed to care about French anymore because it is not a “strategic” language, like the languages of the Middle East (strategic terror languages) and South / East Asia (strategic rising economic giant languages). French is merely a language for ordering nice food (also known as “hawt” cuisine) in a small corner of Europe, and even though it is spoken by millions of Africans outside Europe and a bunch of hockey players and fur trappers in French Canadia, not far from Albany, NY, they are unfortunately of no strategic importance.