A Loss with the Deterioration of the Humanities


I’m not just puffing up my own degree when I say that I found my study of literature to be much more broadly relevant training than mere communication and empathy.

Done correctly, literary analysis can be practice for understanding the universe: Given a limited amount of information, one must determine the appropriate criteria for understanding the creation and separate evidence from noise, making the case for each step along the way.  Of course, a literary critic must go on to master any technical knowledge required to apply this skill set to some other subject, be it theology, physics, or politics, but a specialist in other subjects must do the same in reverse (and often won’t recognize that need).

I’m therefore sorry, but not surprised, to read Alex Berezow’s report on dramatic declines in study of the humanities:

The humanities are in big trouble. That’s the conclusion drawn by Benjamin Schmidt, an Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University. He has the data to back it up.

In his analysis, Dr. Schmidt depicts several graphs, all of which show a fairly striking trend: Students are rejecting the humanities. The most striking graph, which includes data for English, Languages, History, and Philosophy, shows that the number of college degrees in these fields awarded as a percentage of all college degrees fell from roughly 7.5% in the 2000s to under 5% today.

Reviewing the included charts, it appears that the only two exceptions are communications and cultural, ethnic, and gender studies.  The first is broad, but with the feel of practicality (especially in a world of information technology driven to manipulate people).  The second is really more the development of an ideology and reinforcement of emotion.

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Berezow offers three interrelated explanations, which I’d rephrase as follows:

  1. Our society has a general sense that the humanities are not serious disciplines.
  2. The research coming from the humanities reads like a species of parody.
  3. The humanities have been absorbed almost entirely by a particular proselytizing ideology associated with a single political party.

And so, students who are interested in learning and being tested on knowledge and analysis, rather than affirmed in their beliefs and emotions, are leaving the humanities.  That’s a problem because, even with declining numbers, we’re training vast numbers of young adults to feel emotionally entitled and to manipulate others, even as everybody else has less experience framing their responses in the way I described at the outset of this post.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I agree that it is sad that we are experiencing a decline in Humanities, in a way, we are abandoning our culture. It has not been lost on me that many (most?) of our Founding Fathers spoke and read, Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. They studied early treatises on governance. I think we benefitted. When watching a BBC production, I am always pleased when one actor quotes Shakespeare and the other responds “Henry V, act 2″. I understand that there are only about a dozen people in the world who can actually speak Latin with real fluency. Attic Greek is lost. It has perhaps been three generations since memorization was required in elementary school, but who recognizes “The boy stood on the burning deck, Whence all but he had fled;” There are a lot of “Western Values” in there.

    Back to Humanities (dare I say “Humanitarians”?) I suppose, that like Mathematicians, there is a limit to how many we actually need. Perhaps not many, but we all need some familiarity. I think we will have suffered a loss when no one recognizes a “trojan horse” or a “melancholy Dane”. Does “once more into the breach” still have meaning? Does it still summon courage? Whatever! I’m like confused.

  • ShannonEntropy

    The physics major asks: How does it work ??
    The engineering major asks: How can we make it work better ??
    The humanities major asks: Do you want fries with that ??

    Recommended reading for every high school senior=>

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Without doubt, “trade school” degrees are more remunerative. But, while inventing the future, we should not forget our past. We will always need “educated” people. We are in a “culture war”, and we are losing. While I am concerned that “educated” people are “spinning” history, was it not always so? “The victors write the history”.
      “That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
      Let him depart; his passport shall be made
      And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
      We would not die in that man’s company “

      • ShannonEntropy

        Beyond this place of wrath and tears

        Looms but the Horror of the shade,

        And yet the menace of the years

        Finds and shall find me unafraid.

        It matters not how strait the gate,

        How charged with punishments the scroll,

        I am the master of my fate,
        I am the captain of my soul.