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.
The interpretation: The chart never quite reinforces the point that something terrible is going on in the humanities right now. Anyone looking at it closely will notice, as Michael Bérubé has, that the real collapse of humanities enrollments happened in the 1970s. The Great Recession has been less ruinous to enrollments than were the mid-1990s. Sure, a few Harvard majors have switched from history to government in the last decade: is that really a story?
But it does succeed in making the humanities appear massively out of date. And that's a compelling story for all sorts of people. It makes humanists feel as though they deserve a larger share of the university, and that their sense of being under seige is due to the some pathology in the culture at large; it makes traditionalist critics of the humanities feel secure in pointing out that something has gone very wrong in the field.
As for the baseline: the chart starts in 1967 because that's the farthest back point that the federal government has online computerized records of enrollment. But baselines matter, a lot. This graph is misleading as a statement about what the humanities should look like in American life, or even what they used to look like.
1967 is not when they started tracking enrollment numbers--it's just the point where it's extremely easy to make a chart without leaving your computer. A long time ago, I went through two decades of paper printouts from the Bureau of Education and copied by hand what enrollments looked like before 1967. If any period is a very strange abberation in the history of the American university, it's the 1970s, not the 2010s. (It should be clear, but these are stacked--about 10% of all degrees were in the big humanities fields in the late 1940s).
The WSJ chart starts at precisely the moment of highest enrollment.
Degrees are, a bit, lower as a percentage of the university than they were in 1948: humanities were about 10% back then, and more like 8% in recent years. (These four majors form the vast majority of all humanities degrees--we're not losing much quantity by omitting music, Af-Am, and the rest. And I should note I'm speculating a bit about the total BA numbers before 1955 or so--they kept some first professional degrees lumped in, so I might be off by a percentage point or two. That's why this data couldn't be included in the official version of the Indicators, if I recall correctly).
And "percentage of all degrees" is a strange denominator. Everyone knows that they quantity and type of American universities has been changing dramatically. Compared to the massive changes in the American university since the Second World War, it's the resilience of the humanities that should be surprising. If what you care about is humanistic education, you shouldn't be worrying about market share inside the university, which is a dramatically changing thing. You should care about the whole population. And while the 60s boom is still larger than anything we see today, that shows the humanities stabilizing in a fairly healthy place through the early 2000s.
A decline isn't a crisis.
We shouldn't be assessing the health of the humanities by market-share metrics that are far more about demographics and the changing face of higher ed than they are about the intellectual shifts at the heart of actual humanities practice.
Talking about crisis doesn't help us. Humanists obviously get great pleasure from describing themselves on the knife's edge, but they're not especially effective at mobilizing the language of crisis to actually advance our fields.
I suspect we're probably better if we don't buy into the narrative of collapse at all. More people are majoring in humanities fields. More books are being published in them. Whatever problems we have, they're not really about quantity. A fixation on corporatist measures of market share as representing the success of these fields is completely contrary to their aspirations. New enrollments in graduate programs are almost certainly not materially helping the field, but we too often act as if they are.
It's a non-story to say that the humanities are a minor but important part of the economy of the changing university. Everyone loves a narrative. But when someone tells you the humanities are collapsing, it's worth remembering that even the universities, not to even mention the country as a whole, have never been the bastions of humanistic learning we nostalgically invent.