Be Careful What You Wish For

The decline of the humanities is a consequence of their success


MLA Commons, the blog of the Modern Language Association, has posted a number of responses to last month’s Commission of the American Association of Arts and Sciences report on the decline of the humanities and social sciences, most notably from David Laurence, the MLA’s research director. He makes two salient points in his critique of the report that gives the matter fuller context.

1. Fewer women are pursuing majors in the humanities. Writes Laurence:

In the late 1960s, nearly 12 of every 100 degrees earned by women were in English. For men, the figure was about 4.5 of every 100 degrees. By 1983, just over 4 of every 100 degrees women earned were in English, and the gap in the number of English degrees awarded to women versus men shrank from over 7 of every 100 degrees to less than 2. That is, as women gained entry to professions formerly closed to them, their choice of English as a major came to resemble men’s more closely, and the proportion of degrees they earned in English dwindled.

In conjunction with this, he notes, we have seen a rise in the number of women majoring in economics and related fields that lead to careers in business.

2. Over the past three or four decades, the humanities have splintered into a profusion of cross-disciplinary and newly created fields. Laurence points out that disciplines like ethnic studies, women’s studies, and others are often derived from the humanities but usually categorized as social sciences—an area also in steep decline, according to the commission report.

There is no denying that the landscape of higher education has changed and continues to do so at a rapid rate. What was once valued as the mark of an educated person is no longer viewed in the same way. But the shift—including greater representation of women in more diverse areas and the creation of offshoot fields of study—is at least in part the result of efforts made by humanities education itself. We should be honest in acknowledging the gains as well as the losses and recognize the results as things we ourselves have brought about.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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