The Decline and Fall of the Humanities

The Atlantic today highlights a legacy of the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the 4-year humanity degree.

Enrollment in the humanities has fallen off a cliff since the financial crisis of 2008. source.

Right now, the biggest impediment to thinking about the future of the humanities is that, thanks to this entrenched narrative of decline — because we’ve been crying wolf for so long — we already think we know what’s going on. The usual suspects — student debt, postmodern relativism, vanishing jobs — are once again being trotted out. But the data suggest something far more interesting may be at work. The plunge seems not to reflect a sudden decline of interest in the humanities, or any sharp drop in the actual career prospects of humanities majors. Instead, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying — in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market. And something essential is being lost in the process.

I have a PhD in Anthropology, and I’m suppose to say something here about how important a well rounded liberal education is. Instead, I’m going to say something else: The rejection of positivism and restriction of science as just a “western perspective” has needlessly isolated the humanities form the rest of education. Students are making well informed, rational choices about their future, and those don’t include English degrees. If you are upset at this turn of events, your anger is better directed at the economic situation students are looking at.

The cost of a public institution has risen steadily by $500 per year, while that of a private institution by $1,000. Wages, however, have remained flat relative to inflation since the 1970's.
College enrollment for both men and women peaked in 2011, and has had a slow decline since.
Oh, the humanities

The data suggests that in 2011, when the cost of a public 4-year institution passed $16,000 and a private institution $33,000, we crossed the reservation price for many humanities degrees for large numbers of students. This has materialized in two forms: declining overall enrollment and disproportionate impacts on the humanities. What’s more, this is a good thing. With total student debt at close to $1.5 trillion as of this writing, I would be hard pressed to advise even a passionate student of literature that a 4 year bachelors is worth such an investment. I would be hesitant to suggest that anyone follow my footsteps in an anthropology degree.

The data are clear, but we can ask a better question: why don’t the humanities pay as well as other degrees? I would argue it stems from thee factors:

  1. Unnecessary hostility to science and vocational approaches
  2. 19th century departments in the 21st century
  3. Economics of Higher Education

3. Now, this suspiciously looks like an argument for turning a humanities degree into a STEM degree. I would argue it is the opposite — it is fulfilling the promise of a liberal arts education. These core STEM approaches need to be understood by even History students.

1. Hostility to Science

First, this does not apply to many, even most, educators in the humanities. But it certainly does apply to enough for their to be a problem. Last year, I interviewed for a position in an Information Science Department, a hybrid between computer science and the humanities. They teach complex topics like machine learning alongside history courses and philosophy. I think these departments are getting it right, and I am encouraged by their growth. But while meeting with faculty at one of these new departments, I was struck by a massive attitudinal difference between staff who focused on the STEM aspects and those who focused on theory.

STEM faculty were more interested in discussing research and applications. They were also concerned with the implications of their teaching — one topic I heard was their concern that students would only be exposed to python and not other languages.

Theory faculty spent most of the time in my interactions complaining about positivism and worried about the focus on hiring another programmer to join the faculty. They emphasized that information science should be more than just programming, but couldn’t articulate a vision of what the “more” should be.

This is one example, but I could name many, many others in my time visiting anthropology departments around the world. Science has become an essential part of every day life. Voters must weigh scientific views when voting to political candidates, or identifying if drinking two cups of coffee will kill them/lengthen their life/help them sleep better. Hostility to science education as an “alternative” to the humanities creates an unnecessary conflict and puts literature and philosophy on the losing side. We can discuss Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire alongside climatic data for what motivated Germanic tribes to migrate. We can talk about critical race theory alongside the (lack of) scientific data for biological race. Crucially, we can identify what kinds of questions can be answered by the scientific method, and what kinds can’t. If the humanities are unwilling to provide this background, students will gravitate to fields which will. This is not because they dislike the humanities, but the humanities occupy a space that looks less like the world they live in.

More importantly, the false “Humanities vs. STEM” dichotomy silos the humanities into an unempirical safe space that encourages protectionist thinking, not unlike that of the typical Fox News viewer. In a rapidly expanding tech job economy, the humanities have been dealt a losing hand, and invest far too much time defending a set of 2s than getting a new set of cards. The humanities and STEM have a lot to gain from each other. Rather than be thought of as two walled-off factions, they should be two polls with majors such as “history”, “biology”, and “anthropology” leaning toward one or the other along a continuum. The failure to adapt to the 21st century underlies the current difficulties in the humanities.

2. 19th Century Departments in the 21st Century

The modern university came into existence in the 19th century. Many of the departments now characteristic of higher education calcified around the ideas of this time. At no point were a set of stone tablets received from the heavens which dictated that Anthropology was a Social Science, instead of a subfield of Biology. These, instead, were active choices made by ivory-league schools based on the limits of knowledge in each field at the time. Once departments crystalized along these administrative lines, funding did as well.

The development of different departments in recent history have caused contention, such as that of business schools. Yet the division between Social Sciences and Economics can be more bureaucratic than independent research would suggest. While there is nothing wrong with dividing fields of study per se, it does become an issue when marketing graduates. In today’s economy, Engineering programs create engineers, Computer Science departments produce computer scientists, while English departments don’t launch englishes. Instead, people with these kinds of major are left to their own devices to find their way in the world.

A worthy retort would be that the value of a degree in the humanities shouldn’t be reduced to a salary. College in general shouldn’t be viewed narrowly in terms of employment. That was, however, an easier argument to make when a semester cost $300, not $30,0000.

3. Economics of Higher Ed

Around 2011, when the number of students enrolled in humanities programs jumped off a cliff, another notable datapoint shows up. For the first time, total outstanding student loan debt surpassed total outstanding credit card debt in the USA.

Economically, 2010–2011 was an inflection point that will change higher education forever.

As of January 2018, outstanding student loan debt crossed $1.5 trillion in the US. What makes student loan debt unique from other forms of debt is that it cannot be discharged. You can declare bankruptcy and abandon your credit card debt. You can lose your home. But you cannot ever leave your student loans behind. This is a shame, because arguably debt policy has set America on a different course from other nations. In other developed countries, bankruptcy is the end. In the USA, it is a 7 year setback at most. This enables a dynamism to the economy that has resulted in companies like Apple and Microsoft being founded by the most unlikely of suspects. That is still true today, so long as you didn’t go to college.

The (non-vocational) education system starts from the premise that those educated will be teachers. Only a vanishingly small minority of any group of undergraduate students will become professors. And if they do, they are likely to become adjuncts. The vast majority will work in private or public sector jobs. And they will confront statistical data at some point along that path. Traditional humanities education doesn’t prepare them for this reality, and as the cost of education climbs up by $1,000 a year, students will have to choose something else that prepares them better for jobs.

There will always be a place for humanities education, but with current financial and economic trends, many colleges won’t be able to afford to provide it. With low tuition and steady jobs in education and office jobs, it was economically justifiable for a student to go to college with no idea what they were going to do and still land a job with little student debt. The financial crisis in higher education alongside the “gig” economy has destroyed that simple model which hundreds of academic departments have predicated their existence upon. As more and more students are unable to afford the costs of higher education, the university experience will be increasingly judged based on its transactional value, rather than the intangible values of a broad-based education. This is a tragedy, but university’s have to look inward to find its source.

Μη κατατριψης το υπολειπομενον του βιου μερος εν ταις περι ετερων φαντασιαις... ορθον ουν ειναι χρη, ουχι ορθουμενον - Marcus Aurelius