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What if the humanities are in crisis for all the right reasons?

By July 24, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

The “Crisis of the Humanities” is much like a soldier who, shooting his own foot, demands an accounting from the bullet factory.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a real problem – only that, as I’ve written before, the academic study of the humanities has a real fetish for self-harm.  You can’t spend decades killing literature and history, only to scratch your head in the new millennia and wonder why no one is inspired by you.

Except that, maybe, the whole problem is exactly that people were inspired by the humanities. Could the decline in humanities enrollment in academia have occurred precisely because the message of the humanities was taken to heart?

According to a new study of men and women’s bachelor degrees from 1965 to 2005, virtually the entire drop in humanities enrollment during that time occurred because women switched from humanities majors to traditionally male dominated areas like business, medicine, and the law.

These are all subject, it should be noted, that at the beginning of the period in question – 1965 – it was very difficult for women to get into, and even harder to be taken seriously.

There’s no question that a whole lot of women went to college to get their “M.r.s,” and majored in the humanities because it was a area where they could still be feminine – hardly a ringing endorsement of the humanities’ hold on a generation.  It seems equally certain that there were hundreds of thousands (millions?) of women whose passions really were for mathematics and chemistry and physics – but who accepted a place in the humanities departments because it’s all they thought they could get away with.

Perhaps, then, one of the great success stories of the humanities in the last 40 years is precisely that its message of emancipation and higher human aspirations was so well heeded – each succeeding generation of women feeling freeing that the last to pursue their own best passions.

I will be terribly proud of the humanities if this turns out to be the case.  It seems to me the best of reasons for a little decline.