The Corner

Education

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.

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