Thursday, June 9, 2011

An Ant Not Even Thinking About Pissing on Cotton

Over at Crooked Timber, they're discussing Martha Nussbaum's new book on "Why Democracy Needs the Humanities." Sounds like a real stinker. (Altho the thread has alerted me to the fact that I urgently need to read Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, so I guess Nussbaum is to thank for that.) Lots of good criticism of the book, there and at the discussion CT is responding to, but most everyone seems to accept at least the premise that there is a crisis in the humanities --  a "silent crisis," says Nussbaum. Or as representative CT commenter puts it, "you won’t be able to get a BA degree from a land-grant university in twenty years."

Really? This must be an extrapolation from the past 20 years, yes? So, ok, what's happened to the humanities since 1990?

Here are the numbers, from the 2010 Digest of Education Statistics:

The federal government doesn't designate particular subjects as "liberal arts," as far as I know, so I've presented two possible definitions. The blue line is the narrower one: English, visual & performing arts, foreign languages, philosophy, and area/ethnic/gender studies. The red line includes all those, plus social sciences, psychology, interdisciplinary studies, and architecture.

What do we see? Well, there was a decline in the share of humanities degrees in the 1970s. But there was some recovery in the 1980s, and since 1990, the proportion has been flat: around 20% (for the broad measure) or a bit over 10% (for the narrow -- basically English and its satellites -- measure). Whether these proportions ought to be higher, I couldn't say; but if crisis means a situation that can't persist, then this is clearly not a crisis. Or at least, it's a really, really silent one.


  1. I'm guessing at least some of the crisis talk is coming from the fact that some liberal arts departments have been axed in the current budget disaster. But even here it seems a misplaced focus, given how bad the overall budget situation is.

    There seems to be something that happens to otherwise smart writers when they try to write about education; whether they're defending or condemning, morality swallows analysis. You can see where it starts when you talk to a lot of academics, who feel very comfortable making huge claims about the mental deficiencies of eighteen year olds, say, that they would never let anyone make about their field without having actually, you know, studied it. The more they defend "the intellect," the less of it they're using.

  2. prof t right, i totally agree. i think many of the issues stem from the fact that 'education' is a politically charged term to begin with. what is "education" or "knowledge" under a capitalist economy? what does it mean to actually learn? a significant part of what i would call 'knowledge production' takes place outside university bounds.

    there's an interesting article of recent weeks in the guardian that talked about MIT and they have some good chomsky quotes in there -- about how free MIT is in terms of promoting creative, independent learning, /even while/ it was at the center of military research in the postwar era.