Humanities crisis? What crisis?

Cambridge historian warns universities against ‘crying wolf’ and insists that enrolments have mushroomed in the UK and US over the past 50 years

July 9, 2015
Peter Mandler, University of Cambridge
Source: University of Cambridge

A leading historian has challenged most of the current assumptions about a “crisis of the humanities”.

Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, is the president of the Royal Historical Society. In a lecture to the Australian Historical Association in Sydney on 7 July, he explored “The ‘Crisis of the Humanities’ in Comparative Perspective”.

He focused on figures for undergraduate recruitment in the UK, US and Australia over the past 50 or 60 years, “a time of continuous and sometimes explosive growth in higher education, a growth which humanists seem almost instinctively to regard as some kind of existential threat”.

Central to this period has been a move from elite to mass higher education. “It would be surprising,” argued Professor Mandler, “if systems that now reached a huge mass of students without family experience with higher education did not become more vocational – and they did…The democratisation of higher education necessarily broadened the portfolio of courses and thereby almost inevitably led to a serial decline in the share of degrees awarded in the traditional disciplines, both in the humanities and in the sciences.”

For much of this period, Professor Mandler acknowledged, “Treasury officials, industrialists and legislators” have often presented science, technology, engineering and maths subjects as the key to economic growth. Margaret Thatcher’s education minister Keith Joseph, for example, “argued that much current higher education output was ‘economically valueless’, even ‘damaging to the spirit of enterprise’, and he more or less invented an international swing towards science which he bound Britain to emulate”.

Yet such exhortation had little impact on the decisions made by students. On the few occasions when humanities enrolments declined sharply, as in the US in the 1970s and 1980s, Professor Mandler suggested that quite different factors were at play: “Women had reached parity in US higher education at a time when professional careers were not open to them and so professional courses were less attractive.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, while remaining more faithful to the humanities than men, they began to populate in larger numbers professional courses such as business, journalism, communications and social work.

“Men in the 1980s were just as likely to be majoring in humanities as in the 1950s; but women were much less likely. Furthermore, it wasn’t science that benefited from this shift, but rather professional courses that were overwhelmingly non-scientific.”

Yet, overall, the humanities have held up pretty well. Despite a slight decline in the proportion of students, Professor Mandler reminded his audience, “a reasonably stable share of all degrees translates to a vastly increased absolute number of students educated in the humanities today…

“It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold.

“In the US, over a period of much slower expansion, their numbers have still doubled…Talk of a crisis triggered by a decline in a percentage point or two does seem like an over-reaction that is likely to contribute to rather than ameliorate the alleged problem.”

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Article originally published as: Humanities crisis? What crisis? Scholar warns against ‘crying wolf’ (9 July 2015)

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