The Corner


Why the Decline of the Humanities?

Enrollments in college humanities programs have been falling for years — why?

In a new Martin Center article, Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas offers an explanation.

First, he considers the standard reasons advanced by people on the left and the right. Rojas writes,

The left tells us that the problem is capitalism. According to them, the business model of higher education requires that academic programs must be cut unless they turn a tidy profit. Commentators on the right tell us that declining enrollments are a symptom of rot in the university. After years of professors spouting politically motivated social theory, students in the humanities have finally abandoned the classrooms of the “tenured radicals.”

He is not convinced by either. Capitalism certainly is not killing the humanities, and although there are some faculty whose devotion to leftist ideology repels some students, that can’t explain much of the fall off in interest.

Rojas believe that the cause is a change in the reason why students go to college in the first place:

The actual answer lies in a trend that transcends any single college and that predates the culture wars of the 1980s: There has been a massive shift in student attitudes since the 1960s toward vocationalism. As student goals shift, so do their choices of majors.

Polls of student attitudes confirm that shift. More and more of them are mainly interested in college as a path to employment. There are still some students who want to pursue knowledge in the abstract, but as we have oversold higher education, they are a smaller percentage of those who enroll.

The humanities, Rojas observes, have not engaged with the wave of vocationalism that has hit the university. What can be done? “The response,” he writes, “is not to double down on esoteric theory, or endlessly focus on social justice. The response may be simpler. Accept that the university has changed but specialize in providing only what the humanities can offer: a lifelong engagement with ideas.”

Easier said than done, I think.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Most Popular


In Defense of Coleman Hughes

Picture the scene: A young man walks into a congressional hearing to offer witness testimony. His grandfather was barbarically brutalized by people who are now long dead. The nation in which he resides built its wealth of his grandfather’s brutalization. The question: Should his fellow citizens pay the young ... Read More
Film & TV

Toy Story 4: A National Anthem

The Toy Story franchise is the closest thing we have to an undisputed national anthem, a popular belief that celebrates what we think we all stand for — cooperation, ingenuity, and simple values, such as perpetual hope. This fact of our infantile, desensitized culture became apparent back in 2010 when I took a ... Read More

College Leaders Should Learn from Oberlin

Thanks to their social-justice warrior mindset, the leaders of Oberlin College have caused an Ohio jury to hit it with $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a case where the school couldn't resist the urge to side with its “woke” students against a local business. College leaders should learn ... Read More

Joe and the Segs

Joe Biden has stepped in it, good and deep. Biden, if he has any hope of ever being elected president, will be dependent on residual goodwill among African Americans from his time as Barack Obama’s loyal and deferential vice president — so deferential, in fact, that he stood aside for Herself in 2016 even ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Madcap Caution of Donald Trump

The worry last week was that the Trump administration was ginning up fake intelligence about Iran blowing up oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz to justify a war against Iran. Then, this week, President Donald Trump said the Iranian attacks weren’t a big deal. The episode is another indication of the ... Read More
Film & TV

Fosse/Verdon and the Dismal #MeToo Obsession

In the final episode of Fosse/Verdon, one of the two titular characters, Bob Fosse, is shooting one of the greatest films of all time. The other, Gwen Verdon, is having a quarrel with her unspeakably dull boyfriend about whether he approves of her performing in a road-show production of a Broadway musical. These ... Read More