Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Crisis in the humanities, or just women in the workplace?

OK: one last post about enrollments, since the statistic that humanities degrees have dropped in half since 1970 is all over the news the last two weeks. This is going to be a bit of a data dump: but there's a shortage of data on the topic out there, so forgive me.

In my last two posts, I made two claims about that aspect of the humanities "crisis:"

1) The biggest drop in humanities degrees relative to other degrees in the last 50 years happened between 1970 and 1985; the lower level over the last 25 years is not far out of line with pre-1960 levels of humanities majors (and far exceeds it if you account for population).

2) The entirety of the long term decline from 1950 to the present has to do with the changing majors of women, not of men.

To understand where the long-term parts of the crisis come from, that implies, you have to look at what women used to major in, and how those majors have changed. That's what this post is about.

Gender and the long-term decline in humanities enrollments

A quick addendum to my post on long-term enrollment trends in the humanities. (This topic seems to have legs, and I have lots more numbers sitting around I find useful, but they've got to wait for now).

David Brooks claimed in the Times, responding to the American Academy's report on the humanities and social sciences, that the humanities "commited suicide" by focusing on "class, race and gender" instead of appealing to "the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness." There's a lot wrong with this argument. Most of it is obvious from information already on the Internet. (David Silbey notes some of it vis-a-vis my last stats here.)

The most ironic part, though, is that hard-to-find data about the structural role of gender in university enrollments makes nonsense of Brooks' narrative that the humanities were undone by studying gender. Government bureaucrats have always been careful, though, to segregate degrees by gender in their reports.* Those are the reports I typed up to get the trend lines back to 1948 for my last post.

*I don't want to put off any earnest 19-year-olds out there: but one might argue that a persistent state interest in segregating educational achievement by gender suggests a certain degree of, shall we say, purposeful reproduction of sexual difference as a category of exclusion by the state. 

If Brooks is right, one would expect a general decline in enrollments since the 1950s. But the long term results actually show that since 1950, only women have shown a major drop in the percentage of humanities majors. (And keep in mind that the college population has increased dramatically in this period: this is just about college students). Men are just as likely (7%) to major in the humanities as they were in 1950, although there was a large spike in the 1960s.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Some long term perspective on the "crisis" in humanities enrollment

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal about low enrollments in the humanities yesterday. The heart of the story is that the humanities resemble the late Roman Empire, teetering on a collapse precipitated by their inability to get jobs like those computer scientists can provide. (Never mind that the news hook is a Harvard report about declining enrollments in the humanities, which makes pretty clear that the real problem is students who are drawn to social sciences, not competitition from computer scientists.)

But to really sell a crisis, you need some numbers. Accompanying this was a graph credited to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing a spectacular collapse in humanities enrollments. I happen to have made one of the first versions of this chart working there several years ago. Although it shows up in the press periodically to enforce a story of decay, some broader perspective on the data makes clear that the "Humanities in crisis" story has the wrong interpretation, the wrong baseline, and the wrong denominator.