The Humanities in Decline

by Dimitrios Halikias

Harvard has released an extensive report on the state of the university’s humanities programs. The study outlines the dramatic decline of enrollment in Harvard’s many humanities majors, and considers several of the most prominent contemporary criticisms of the humanities. The report also sets forth a positive argument for a renewed commitment to the traditional humanistic education, and provides recommendations for how Harvard faculty can restore excitement in these declining fields.

Over the past 60 years, the percentage of Harvard students majoring in the humanities has been cut almost in half, falling from 36 to 20 percent. Even more strikingly, in just the past six years, the number of freshmen who declare an interest in majoring in humanities has fallen by a third, from 27 to 18 percent. This suggests that the decline in the humanities has happened largely outside of the universities, as students decide on other academic and career pursuits while still in high school.

The report also documents national statistics, which feature similarly steep declines in the humanities. This is perhaps most clearly a product of the changing job market, which drives students ouf of history, philosophy, and literature, and into more professional oriented or financially rewarding disciplines. Faced with difficult budget deficits, many state universities have chosen to cut back on the humanities first, choosing instead to focus resources on courses of study that better prepare students for the workforce. 

Interestingly, Harvard’s report considers the effect of the university’s liberal bias, which may produce an increasingly close-minded academic environment, thereby discouraging conservative students from pursuing the humanities.

Those of us committed to criticism and critique might recognize a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy. Among the ways we sometimes alienate students from the humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in our classroom.


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