Are the humanities in crisis? If they are, how can we save them?

Although talk of crisis may be alarmist, academics in the humanities need to get out and fight their corner more effectively, former president says

May 23, 2018
Person dressed as Grim Reaper
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Rob Paige, provost emeritus of Arizona State University, has spoken of “indicators of clear and present danger to the humanities”. Yet Blaine Greteman, associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, has argued that “the humanities death watch for the past 60 years” is marked “both by its recurring character and its disconnect from objective fact”.

In order to get at the truth behind this polarised rhetoric, Dennis Ahlburg, distinguished professor of economics at Trinity University in Texas, put together a team of experts in 11 different countries to look at the data. He shared some of their findings, to be published later this year as The Changing Face of Higher Education, at UCL's Centre for Global Higher Education earlier this week in a seminar titled “Is there an international crisis in the humanities?”

Perhaps the crucial metric is student enrolment, Professor Ahlburg told Times Higher Education, because, "if students aren’t enrolling it is pretty difficult to say your subject is in good health. Looking at the data, he said, "it is difficult to say definitely that there’s a crisis in student numbers in any countries except France and the US. But there are still significant problems facing the humanities.”

In the developing world, “the problem is not too few students but too many”. From Egypt to Mexico, “you have growing young populations that the government wants to educate and the cheapest option is the humanities. Where students have a choice, they will choose more vocational subjects.”

The US, by contrast, witnessed what Professor Ahlburg called “a gigantic decline in the 1970s and 1980s” and some worry we may again see something similar. A major factor behind the earlier drop, perhaps surprisingly, was the contraceptive pill.

“The Pill allowed women to invest in higher education,” explained Professor Ahlburg. In earlier times, a common pattern had been to choose a subject such as English or history, so “they could teach for a couple of years before they got married”. Greater reproductive freedom led to a shift towards more vocational subjects and often lifelong careers.

Although there has been no comparable recent decline in the humanities, Professor Ahlburg warned that “if you look at the last five years or so, there’s definitely cause for concern, particularly in the ‘core humanities’”, such as languages and literature, history and philosophy, even if there has been greater take-up in fields such as communications and the visual arts. In the US, there has been a decline in total numbers studying the “core humanities” since 2009-10 and the “broad humanities” since 2012-13, with “market share” showing a much more sizeable drop. In the UK, the situation is not yet as bad but, with absolute numbers peaking in 2011-12, it “could still follow the US pattern”.

Professor Ahlburg, who served as president of Trinity from 2010 to 2014 and has spent much of his career in business schools, said that he was worried by such trends, which he suspected were bad for the wider economy, and based on erroneous beliefs about the “returns” on a humanities degree to individual students.

“The [economic] return to [graduates of] the so-called soft skills, for the last five to 10 years, has been greater than the return from cognitive skills,” he pointed out. While the figures for salaries five years after graduation looked dispiriting, “if you look at earning over a longer time frame, humanities then catch up and cross. Three- or five-year windows may misrepresent the lifetime value of the humanities.” Furthermore, “people in the humanities are much more likely to go on to graduate school, where the returns are much higher”.

If they want to reverse current trends, in Professor Ahlburg’s view, academics in the humanities needed to bring more “marketing pizzazz” to attract potential students. They also had “to be able to put their case in the right language, in terms of the economic returns to softer skills. That is in no way a sell-out. If you ignore the economic value, you’re going to lose the argument, because the assumption will be that there isn’t one, so why should we waste our time and money on you? It doesn’t change one iota of what you teach or what you research. All it changes is the way you approach attracting people to what you are passionate about.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: How can we save the humanities?

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