What catches the eye about the chart of jobs advertised in the JIL, of course, is the remarkably rapid drop between 2007–08 and 2009–10 and the steady decline since. Every year since 2013–14 has set a successive new low for the total number of jobs advertised; when you consider the proportion of tenure-track jobs listed (63.4% and 46.3% of the listings in the English and foreign language editions, respectively, in 2016–17, compared with 75.6% and 59.5% in 2007–08), the total number of tenure-track jobs advertised is less than half of what it was a decade ago (807 in 2016–17 versus 2,149 in 2007–08).2 Similarly, one might be concerned by the decline in the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees awarded since 2005–06. Both declines suggest that we are, at the moment, in a relative low point, especially on the hiring side, where things seem quite dire.
But of course both charts also offer a vision of a way out of this darkness: we can wait. Previous peaks have always come back down to valleys; the valleys have risen back to new peaks. And the number of overall majors in the humanities has been fairly steady since the mid-1970s. So if we can just hold on for a bit, things will work themselves out, as they always have before. There are good reasons, political and social, for shedding the habit of melancholy, for abandoning the chronic age of Minerva’s owl, for letting go of the noble fantasy that we are the remaining survivors of the historic rear guard. Things have been, more or less, fine for about forty years.
Part of the reason they have been fine—and I know that things have not always been fine, that departments and programs have closed, that there is a mechanism whereby forces in this country attempt to financialize the university to destroy its capacity to influence its citizens and the possibility of a common life—is, however, because humanists have fought. Things were not just fine on their own.
That is the good news—that the overall institutional position of the humanities is relatively historically stable and that it is so partly because of the efforts of humanists. The bad news is that today things are actually, I am going to argue, different. I want to persuade you, therefore, to abandon any sense of complacency and to believe that we are facing at this moment—right now—a crisis in the humanities. Without action, we humanists, and the graduate and undergraduate students we care about and serve, stand to lose a great deal. I believe this crisis will define and shape us, as it has already done for our colleagues who struggle with precarious employment and contingent appointments.
What Is Happening to Enrollments?
While the financial factors that caused the decline in the number of jobs advertised since 2007–08 have ameliorated—state funding for higher education is back, in most states, to its pre-2008 levels, and endowments have recovered—other factors are causing a rapid and historically unusual decline in undergraduate enrollments and majors in the humanities.3
This decline is going to be responsible for a highly unusual double shock, in which an already shaken PhD job market not only fails to recover but also worsens, as a result of the decline in enrollments. The results will be, I fear, devastating, for graduate students as well as for departments and programs.
The general decline in undergraduate humanities enrollments does not correspond to a decline in undergraduate enrollments overall or in the liberal arts more generally. It has taken place in a relatively short period of time—not since 2008, but since 2010 or 2011, which is what makes it hard to see, given that much of the data we have for historical enrollments are at this point a year or two (or more) behind the times. At many institutions the decline in humanities majors since 2010 is over 50%, a phrase that I can barely bring myself not to italicize, put in all capital letters, and surround with flashing lights.
David Laurence of the MLA’s office of research has summarized some of what is happening in a 2017 MLA convention presentation about trends in the English major (Laurence et al.). He was moved to present on the topic after discussions in the ADE Executive Committee, which “gained urgency after 2010, as members of the committee brought reports of a new decline—in some departments alarmingly steep—in the number of undergraduates choosing English as a major.”
Laurence provides figure 3, which shows the number of bachelor’s degree completions in English, history, languages other than English, and philosophy and religious studies between 1987 and 2015. This long-term view may mitigate some anxiety—we are, after all, still above 1987. But local stories give a clearer picture of the “alarmingly steep” declines. Where I teach, at Penn State, the number of humanities majors fell dramatically between fall 2010 and fall 2015, by about 40% across all disciplines. Research by Laurence shows shockingly large declines at hundreds of institutions across the country. To speak of English alone, if we compare the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in that field in 2015 with the average number of degrees conferred between 2000 and 2010, we see the following changes:
- Out of 258 doctorate-granting institutions, 189 (nearly 75%) saw declines in the number of bachelor’s degrees granted. Of those, 124 had declines of 20% or more and 53 had declines of 40% or more. At 66 institutions, the number of bachelor’s degrees granted increased. The number of 2015 English graduates across all doctorate-granting institutions is 79% percent of the 2000–10 average.
- Of 438 master’s-degree-granting institutions, 264 (60%) saw declines. Of these, 178 had declines of 20% or more and 95 had declines of 40% or more. At 171 institutions, the number of bachelor’s degrees granted increased. The number of 2015 English graduates across all master’s institutions is 96% of the 2000–10 average.
- Of 258 bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions, 179 (70%) saw declines. Of those, 128 had declines of 20% or more and 63 had declines of 40% or more. At 76 institutions, the number of bachelor’s degrees granted increased. The number of 2015 English graduates across all bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions is 80% of the 2000–10 average.4
Let me put it more plainly: at many, many of the schools where we work, the number of humanities degrees awarded has dropped precipitously. In 2015 about 7,400 fewer English majors graduated from universities in the United States than did in an average year from 2000 to 2010. In many places, enrollments in the languages and literatures are not declining as quickly, since departments of language, literature, and history continue to fill seats in general education courses. But at Penn State—and at places where friends of mine teach around the country—upper-level language and literature classes that used to fill are having a hard time making their enrollment minimums, and faculty members are being pushed more and more into the work of teaching for the core curriculum.
In short: things are changing, and they are changing quickly—in the last four or five years. It is the rapidity of this change and the structural causes for it that lead me to believe that we cannot simply wait for things to get better.
Structural Changes in the University System in the United States
At some level the explanation is fairly simple: cuts in state funding for education. Such cuts produce two well-documented consequences. First, they push governments (states in the United States, national governments elsewhere) to increase tuition (Mitchell and Leachman; see also Mitchell et al., “Funding”), which increases student loan debt. Second, they push state universities to increase enrollments of full-price-paying international students to compensate for loss of revenue (Redden).
Each of these factors depresses humanities majors (and hence humanities enrollments more generally). The first causes students to move away from majors less likely to produce immediate income benefits (Sá), leading to decreases in majors in the humanities and the arts. The second brings more students to campus for whom English is a second language and who are therefore less likely to invest in any major that includes intensive reading and writing in English. International students do not in and of themselves contribute to the decline in humanities enrollments. At Penn State, for instance, such students are essentially added on top of existing students, accounting for 98.5% of the total enrollment growth of 4,270 students since 2006 at the main University Park campus. But their appearance contributes to the humanities’ shrinking share of university majors and thus diminishes the power of the departments and colleges that contain such disciplines.
These financial and structural factors outweigh many other recent explanations, which have tended to focus on cultural issues. It’s worth reminding ourselves that most of these explanations don’t hold water. English majors are declining because of too much theory-laden jargon, we’re told (e.g., Klinkenborg), or because students have to read too much literature by black people (e.g., Fund), but enrollments go up during the theory era and during the period when work by African Americans enters the curriculum. People are fleeing the humanities because it’s full of liberal self-satisfaction (Flaherty), but the number of self-identified liberals in the United States is at an all-time high (Saad). Women, liberated from the tyranny of humanistic expectations, are finally free to major in STEM fields (Tworek), but again, look at the charts: the major changes come in the 1970s; since then it’s all ups and downs.
Cuts in state spending and the overall rise in tuition (driven by factors like the growth of administrative staff, the need for universities to provide important student goods like counseling centers, and so on) have led us to a situation in which the state factors that support the study of the humanities—and the freedom of people to study whatever they want without the threat of devastating financial consequences—are at a postwar nadir. The great investments in university education in the post–World War II period that allowed the humanities to become something nearly anyone could have access to have been rolled back. Prospects are unlikely to improve in the current political situation.
Consider what has happened to the academic job market in the languages and literatures since 2008. You’ve seen the chart: the number of positions in English and foreign languages advertised in 2016–17 is a historic low (1,659). The job market for humanities PhDs was hit especially hard by the 2008 financial crisis, harder than the job market for the social sciences (Welch and Long), for reasons that are not clear. Thus, the events of 2008 already constituted, for the humanities, an unusual crisis.
In 2014 state funding to higher education institutions was still below its 2008 numbers in most states (Mitchell et al., “States”); since roughly 2011 and 2012, however, those numbers have revived (“Total and Per-Student State and Local Funding”). The stock markets, and hence endowments, are back above 2007 highs.5 We might expect, therefore, a return to hiring at more normal levels, an upswing of the market like the one that happened in the mid-1980s or the 2000s—another upward turn of the enrollment and job market graphs, another cycle weathered.
The recent and rapid decline in the number of majors suggests, however, that the humanities may have become disconnected from the general ups and downs of university funding, resulting in a second shock, in which the enrollment drops are extending and concretizing the effects of the 2008–15 period. Having gone from 800 majors to 400, or from 550 to 270, what department head can easily make an argument for increasing the size of the tenure-line faculty? On what grounds can we even argue for hiring replacements for our retiring colleagues? And if departments reduce their hiring, instead of bringing it back to previously normal levels (which were already not enough to employ all the graduating PhDs on the tenure track), what will happen to our graduate students?
To make things worse: in this new situation we will not have the same allies we had before (during the financial crises of 2001, 2008, and so on). Enrollments in the social sciences, in business, and in science are increasing. (At Penn State the department of economics graduated twice as many students in 2015 as it did in 2009.) The humanities are institutionally more alone, more vulnerable, than they have ever been, more at the mercy of a university’s financial decisions or a new dean’s desire to prove his or her toughness by consolidating departments or reducing faculty size.
What Is to Be Done?
It is important to me that these suggestions not be seen as directed primarily at adjunct faculty members or at graduate students. The responsibility for dealing with these problems, which are intimately related to the profession’s complicity with the adjunctification of teaching work, lies with the tenure-line faculty at all levels.
At the Graduate Level
To my colleagues involved in PhD programs, I want to say something simple and hard: unless you are placing most of your students in the professorial jobs for which you are training them, you need to rethink what you are doing. We cannot go on like this—we cannot go on treating people like this, cannot go on allowing ourselves to accept students who believe that they will be the ones to make it, when we see so clearly that the job market is a matter not of individual talent but of structural violence, a matter not of desert or hard work but of pattern and system whose primary ideological function is to absolve the individuals who participate in it from any moral responsibility for its effects. We know how the market works. We know also that the dreams of students, their love of school and of literature, will bring them into our programs regardless of what the market looks like; we know that our own pleasure and happiness in teaching them, our pride in being part of their lives, would be diminished by their disappearance. We know that if we stop admitting students or cut our admissions numbers in half, again, our programs might not survive.
Nonetheless we need to act: the good of the program cannot outweigh the ethical responsibility we have to care for those who wish to earn a PhD. We are not responsible for the situation, but we are the ones who have the responsibility to respond to it.
How to change things? That is a task for the institutional and moral imagination. The good news is that humanists are specialists of the imagination. Among other things, we can begin training PhD students for nonprofessorial jobs. The MLA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Historical Association are making significant efforts in this direction; if you haven’t looked at the resources available through MLA’s Connected Academics initiative, you should—they’re fantastic. (To be clear: this is not some call for “alt-ac” careers: it is a claim that we need to alter PhD training so that humanities doctorates always prepare students for careers outside the university.) We may also want to double down on certain PhD programs—for instance, those that train the kind of people the professoriat still doesn’t have enough of, people from socially minoritarian groups of all kinds—to assure that this job market crisis does not force us to step backward in our continuing attempt to make the university look more like (or better than) society. We may want to talk honestly and openly to students about the situation and to offer them the chance to refuse the structures of professionalization that govern so much of PhD programs these days, to focus, if they’d like, on learning and writing for purposes other than the academic job market.
In any case, for me the question at this point is, How can we ethically continue to have PhD programs in the face of this new situation? What are the terms under which I feel it acceptable to admit students to a PhD program—how would I insist that they be treated, that they be trained, that they be supported and mentored in professional and intellectual terms? More important, how can those terms be institutionalized, so that every student gets that kind of training and support?
(My terms may not be yours, of course. But that’s OK—the argument can be about what the terms would be. Ideally this rethinking would replace what’s mostly happening now, which is simply a continuation of the status quo that responds to the poor academic job market by ratcheting up pressure on individual students, who are told they need to publish more, graduate faster, teach more, produce more job market documents, and so on, a process that essentially makes them individually responsible for their situation and to blame if they don’t find professorial employment. We all understand that blaming the victims of structural poverty or racism is outrageous; it would be nice to bring the same sense of awareness to our own institutional situations.)
My point here is that doing nothing is not OK. Doing nothing is being complicit with ignorance and violence.
At the Undergraduate Level
The ethics of undergraduate education are far simpler. At one level, it is worth acknowledging that if lifetime income is your only goal in going to college, you should be a petroleum engineer (at least until the oil runs out) or an economist (Carnevale et al., What’s It Worth?; Weissmann). But of course getting a high-paying job is not the only reason most students go to college. And even if it were, there’s plenty of evidence that humanities majors do just fine (in the Hamilton Project rankings [“Career Earnings”], in many cases it’s a matter of a few thousand dollars less a year in mid-career, which is not such a disaster in exchange for having an education that teaches you how to do more than just a job; Carnevale et al. [What’s It Worth?] shows much more extreme differences, however). It’s also the case that many high-paying employers claim to be looking for English and other humanities majors (see Anders; Giang; Linshi; Asay; and Segran). And so it’s clear that we are doing no damage to students who major in our undergraduate fields, that, as they so often tell us, we seem to be doing them a fair amount of good. I feel perfectly calm both about the professional prospects of our students and about the noneconomic value humanistic teaching adds to their lives.
That said, because the current version of our crisis stems from undergraduate enrollments, I want to focus there for the moment. Here, then, are four ideas for ways we might improve undergraduate enrollments, which would lead to improvements in majors and therefore to improvements in the professorial job market.
1. Teach the Humanities, Not the Disciplines
The data suggest that enrollments in the humanities are falling far more slowly than the number of majors, because, I suspect, of the continuing appeal of humanistic questions: What is friendship? What does it mean to have a good life? What is justice? How do feelings work? Does history have meaning? Are we alone in the universe? What does it feel like to be a migrant? Students are less interested—as far as I can tell—in topical courses that promise coverage of a geographic region or historical period, in courses like The Modern Novel or Medieval Europe.
Students also like classes that tell them how to do things—how to eradicate world poverty; how to live a satisfying life; how to create political change. None of these would be strictly history or English or philosophy. I think that’s a feature, not a bug: my guess is that the humanities are going to survive by expanding and extending their general interdisciplinarity, by realizing that the separation of disciplines produces appeals to certain kinds of expertise that at this point may not be enough to retain our traditional audiences. Our market has changed; we probably need to change with it.
Most of our classes in literature already involve philosophy and history (if not also sociology, art history, anthropology, economics, psychology, and the like). We may want to double down on this interdisciplinarity, seeing our courses as training in the humanities (in general), ourselves as humanists (in general), and our work as orienting our students to the big human questions, which are, after all, not constrained by the boundaries of the university’s disciplinary divisions.
I am not saying that disciplines are stupid, or that we were foolish to tie ourselves to them, that disciplinary knowledge is useless or passé or dumb. But in a world where the existing humanities disciplines no longer have the appeal they used to—in which they cannot attract students to make a ten-course commitment to a major—we might market ourselves institutionally to our potential students in more than one way, both as disciplines and as places that ask big questions and teach you how to do things. The problem, that is, is not disciplinarity in general (economics, as I’ve said, is doing fine); the problem is humanistic disciplinarity, in this particular socioeconomic situation.
2. Experiment with Departments, Courses, and Programs
Making the kind of curricular changes I’m proposing is difficult because of institutional inertia. Who would approve the courses? Under what rubrics would they be taught? Here faculty members and administrators need to work together to create experiments in departments and programs. What if, for instance, a dean offered a group of faculty members (let’s say ten to fifteen) who could make a viable proposal the opportunity to create a new humanistic program focused on undergraduate education? What if those faculty members could spend five years, supported with a course release or two and a bit of research money, working to create new courses that would either answer the big questions or introduce students to majors in a broad and appealing way?
Of course such a thing might not work! But what we have now is not working either. It would be really great if we could populate the country (or the world) with experiments like this, knowing that we can all learn from their successes and failures and copy from them what makes a difference.
At the curricular level, I think there’s some promise in what I think of as “super-courses.” Here at Penn State, Sam Richards teaches a sociology course called Race and Ethnic Relations that enrolls 725 students a semester (see “SOC 119”). Richards’s course is supported by a host of undergraduate teaching assistants, students who have taken the course before and now receive additional course credit for facilitating discussion, building bridges among new students, and so on. At Harvard, Michael Puett teaches a 1,000-student class on classical Chinese philosophy; the course, like Richards’s, changes lives, because that’s what the humanities do (Gross-Loh).6
I would also be interested in experimenting with very small courses—five or six students. I recognize that the labor costs here loom large (though presumably a department could compensate for this by teaching some large lecture sections). Such courses would allow us to approach what we know of the best of education, which is that it reaches deep into the person, into the individual, and there expands students’ capacities and their relation to the world. The humanities already are the place where students go to feel like their teachers are talking with them, not at them; we should make the most of that reputation and expand it.
3. Don’t Give Up on the Students
The humanities right now simply cannot afford to have faculty members who do not engage or connect with students, no matter how smart or interesting the faculty research is. Does that mean teaching the students at their level? Yes, it does. They are coming to us differently prepared—the Common Core has radically reduced the amount of reading and writing K–12 students in the United States do—and under more financial pressure than any generation before them. There’s no point in blaming them for it. Doctors don’t complain that all their patients are sick people; their job is to heal them. Our job is to increase capacities and reduce ignorance.
Let me be a bit clearer about this. People have been talking about improving teaching for years. But, at least at a major Research I university like Penn State, there is almost no premium on being a great instead of an average teacher; the difference exerts almost no pressure on tenure and promotion systems, and so faculty members rationally concentrate on publication. The day we withhold tenure from someone because he or she is a bad teacher or make it clear that a merit raise is lower than it might have been had the teaching been better is the day we can be confident we’re taking this situation seriously. (How do you define bad? How do you compensate for student bias as it applies to women, people of color, and so on? These are real and important questions and should be addressed by faculty members, seriously, as they determine the structures with which they will govern themselves. The premium on teaching needs to come from inside departmental governance structures, not be imposed from on high.)
4. Justify and Explain What We Do
Every single class in the humanities should include some discussion about what the humanities are and why they’re worth something; it might even include information about salaries and employment issues, since our students (and their parents) often care about those a great deal. We need to be teaching students the value of their own education, telling them why what they’re learning matters, and giving them a name (“the humanities”) to attach that learning to. It’s not enough simply to teach the material. All this is part of creating more defenders of humanities in the public sphere. We need to teach as many people as possible, as well as possible, to create the lifelong bonds of affiliation and recognition that will allow the kinds of knowledge we have and the kinds of knowing we do to remain a vibrant part of state-funded education. And we need them to recognize that that’s what’s happening.
My friend Derek Fox, an astronomer with whom I plan to teach a course called Being in the Universe sometime in the next couple years, read this paragraph and told me he wished that people could just say something like, “Take humanities because of how they make you feel. Take humanities because of how much you love to think. Take humanities because when you push yourself, really push yourself, you realize how far you have to grow and how fast you are capable of getting there.” This is exactly the kind of thing we should be saying, in every class. And the job of teaching is then to make these things be true—to make promises to students about what the humanities can do for them (intellectually, emotionally) and then fulfill those promises for as many students as possible.
Taking Despair Seriously. And Yet.
Last thing: a couple years ago I was talking to someone who was chairing a large English department. “I feel so worried about the profession,” she told me, “that sometimes I just think to myself, ‘Oh well, at least I only have five years to retirement, so I won’t have to watch it all fall apart.’”
I completely understand this feeling. Sometimes I feel it too. And I do think that articles like this one too often present a disastrous series of facts as a sort of medically appropriate realism, a cure that also poisons anyone who gets too close to it. Many of us, having invested much of our lives in these fields, look at what’s going on and feel scared or sad. Part of the problem is that the sheer scale of the problem makes it feel impossible to fight against, and so despair leads to a kind of learned helplessness: There’s nothing I can do. At least I’ll be dead before it’s all over.
But it doesn’t have to be over, even if it does, I am arguing, have to change. No one ever said you would get to do the job in the same way for all forty years of your career. No one ever said that large-scale social changes wouldn’t change your working conditions. Well, they have. And now the challenge is to figure out how, in this new environment, to keep the humanities not only alive but also fresh and new, not to retreat like a seed in winter, hoping for the coming spring, but to engage in experiments that will allow us to shift and adapt to new ecosystems—to change and live and to fight to live, however changed, because what we have and what we do is worth fighting for and makes us worthy of the fight.
- I recognize that “not that bad” is hardly an objective criterion; I suppose I am here comparing the picture the data present with the myth of the English major who works at Starbucks or McDonald’s. “Not that bad” means that though humanities majors make less money, on average, than do STEM majors, the humanities are nonetheless not a sentence to a life in poverty. Graduates with bachelor’s degrees in the humanities have an average annual salary of $52,000, compared with $56,000 for those with bachelor’s degrees in biology, $64,000 for those with degrees in chemistry, $66,000 for those with degrees in nursing, or $76,000 for those with degrees in economics (Carnevale et al., Economic Value 148–52 [app. 3]). ↩
- Changes in the supply side of the PhD job market make this situation even worse; as Birmingham recently noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of humanities PhDs produced between 2008 and 2014 increased by 12%. ↩
- How historically unusual? The largest historical decline in humanities majors happened between 1971 and 1981, as Silver’s charts suggest (see also Turner and Bowen). This is reflected in the low point of 1985–86, which is also a low point for the social sciences, which went from 23.0% of all degrees in 1970–71 to 13.6% in 1985–86. The main growth areas in that period were in computer science, business, and the collection of fields the National Center for Education Statistics database labels “other”: agriculture, communication (including journalism), criminology, health and human development, and parks/recreation and fitness studies. Though both the humanities and the social sciences recovered from this shift, they never fully recovered: the 1971–81 changes represent a radical alteration of the nature of education in universities in the United States and reflect the vast expansion of access to higher education in that period—they are therefore largely a good thing. ↩
- Laurence tells me that his data are affected in some cases by changes in degree reporting made by the Department of Education in 2010, in which “rhetoric and composition” was broken out from “English language and literature.” ↩
- In October 2007 the S&P 500 was at 1,812.77 points. It bottomed out at 846.82 in February 2009, reached 1,839.10 in October 2013, and was at 2,384.20 in April 2017. ↩
- I recognize here, below the line, the idea that the large lecture class constitutes a form of mass entertainment that is therefore inimical to the very idea of the humanities. I reject the binary, noting that plenty of bad teaching goes on in smaller classes and plenty of student engagement happens in larger ones. It is a question here of broadening the forms in which we reach out to students, in the hopes, of course, that the larger classes will produce carryover enrollments into smaller and more intense (but still well-taught and engaging) ones, of making this part of an overall strategy. It is also a matter of thinking about the possible mass appeal of the humanities, to ask whether there can be a mass humanities that would retain its fundamental values and what it would look like. ↩
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An earlier version of this essay cited an article by Mark Bauerlein that characterized remarks made by Steven Knapp; I took Knapp’s remarks (as paraphrased) to be saying that humanities enrollments were down because the humanities had embraced multiculturalism. That was wrong. Knapp, who helped found both the Africana Studies Program at Johns Hopkins and the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, said nothing of the sort. I’ve written to him to apologize.
Posted May 2018