Why Students Flee the Humanities · 24 March 2009

By John Ellis - MindingtheCampus.com

On February 25, 2009, an article by Patricia Cohen appeared in the New York Times:

“In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” Its thesis was a familiar one: an economic downturn will lead to a decline in the number of college majors in the humanities because in hard times enrollments shift toward majors with direct vocational utility. The article could have been written 25 or 50 years ago—the phenomenon it talks about is well known. For example, English majors made up 7.59% of those graduating with bachelor’s degrees in 1968, but as the stock market bottomed in the early 1980’s following the Carter economic debacle, that number had sunk to 3.7%. But Cohen’s article is not just a tedious rehash of well-known ideas from the past: it has a more serious flaw. For while this argument could have been and in fact was made at many times in the past, it can not be made today. And that is because the humanities have undergone a profound change that makes Cohen’s entire argument meaningless.

Let’s look first at the statistics. As the economy improved dramatically during the 1980’s, the figure for English majors rose with the economy, reaching 4.7% by the end of the decade. But now the familiar pattern broke down: as the economy continued to get stronger, the figures for English majors began to go in the opposite direction, the first time this had happened. By 1995, English majors had declined to 4.3% of all bachelor’s degrees, and by 2005 they had gone down to 3.7%, the same figure that was seen at the economy’s bottom in the early 80’s—except that the economy had now been booming almost continuously for 20 years.

Something had happened beginning in the early 1990’s to reverse the familiar pattern, and by 2005 it had halved what would have been the expected figure for English majors at this stage in the economy. (That other great field of studies in the humanities—History—showed the same pattern: in the early 1970’s it accounted for 5.3% of bachelor’s degrees, but by 2006 that had dropped sharply to 2.2%, again with the economy booming.) What had caused this amazing result? There can be little doubt as to what it was. The English major had changed profoundly, as had the Professors who taught it. The time when the numbers for English majors abruptly diverge from the economic cycle is exactly the time at which public unrest surfaced over the political correctness and obsession with race, gender and class in college humanities teaching. Richard Bernstein’s famous NYT article which first brought the issue to the attention of the public appeared on October 28, 1990, and Dinesh de Souza’s Illiberal Education, the first full-length treatment of the subject, appeared in 1991. The sharp drop in enrollments in certain humanities fields was not a response to economic conditions, but instead to the way they were now being taught.

While Ms Cohen talks about the cyclical enrollment slump of the past she ignores the far more serious semi-permanent one that has been going on for two decades, but she is also living in the past when she describes the content of the humanities. She takes the essence of a humanities education to be reading the great literary and philosophical works in order to come to grips with the question of what living is for, a conception which, she tells us, some of the “staunchest humanities advocates” admit that they have failed to make the case for as effectively as they should have done. But here she displays an astonishing blindness. Doesn’t she know that for some time professors of English and History themselves (her “staunch advocates”?) have been making the case against this conception of the humanities? For the race, gender, and class obsessed orthodoxy that now dominates English departments, those great literary works are suspect: they reflect and promote the sexism and racism of the past, and so might stand in the way of the social change that is now the goal of the professoriate. That’s why students at major American universities can now get a degree in English literature without having read William Shakespeare: when Shakespeare is seen as an apologist for and ideologist of imperialism, this should not be a surprise. For Ms Cohen, the great writers impart the wisdom of the past, but she seems not to know that the powers that be in college English departments worry instead about those writers exemplifying and perpetuating its bigotry. In History, the inspiring story of the development of the American Constitution—one of history’s greatest wonders—is also neglected and/or treated with similar condescension and disparagement. If the professors teaching these subjects no longer believe in them, why should it be surprising that students abandon them too?

Ms Cohen says that the “critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop….are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy,” and of course I’d be happy to join her in that view of the humanities. But in saying so she seems completely out of touch with what is really happening in college humanities courses, for it is not this. Doesn’t she know that civic and historical knowledge of American history and institutions is at a low ebb precisely because that knowledge does not mesh with the dominant politically correct ethos of the professoriate? Or that ethical reasoning in the humanities is now often reduced to a compulsory buying into the obsession with group grievance that has been central to humanities teaching for some time? Or that in the experience of far too many students, genuinely independent, critical thinking is scarcely inspired by teachers themselves in the grip of a shallow, one-sided critique of their own society—a dogma that may not be questioned?

I need not further belabor this question of the health of a field that in recent years has been far more concerned that its students read the incoherent Derrida and the paranoid Foucault that William Shakespeare. The most fundamental problem in Ms Cohen’s piece is that she writes as if what threatens the health of the humanities is the philistinism of the general public and the pecuniary crassness of its children, a viewpoint doubtless shared in her view by an enlightened NYT readership. But, alas, here she has things exactly backwards. The students are not the problem: they will be back when they are offered the kind of humanities program that Ms Cohen seems to want. The philistinism of the great unwashed non-NYT reading American public is also not the problem—it is very much opposed to the nonsense that has ruined college education in the humanities. If Ms Cohen is serious about getting us back to the conception of the humanities that she espouses, she’ll have to take on those elite humanities professors who have betrayed it. She’ll find it easy to reach them: I’m sure they all read the New York Times.

John Ellis is Professor Emeritus of German Literature at UC Santa Cruz, and President of the California Association of Scholars