College students have given up on the humanities

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Back when the USA was a middle-class country, lots of people chose to go to college and get a degree that would allow them to teach in the public schools. Huge numbers of women did this. For a long stretch, the only requirement to teach in K-12 schools was a college degree, and the specialty did not matter much. Since 2008, for the first time in history, some states cut back on the number of K-12 teachers they were employing, meaning this avenue to an easy middle class life is now closed.

That is one thread.

Another is that college is increasingly seen as a trade school. You go there to learn a trade, such as computer programming. And the status of nearly all trades have fallen, as wages have fallen. Engineers are paid less than what they used to be paid. Computer programming is now the equivalent of what carpentry used to be. The re-emergence of oligarchy means that all of the professions have lost ground, compared to the privileged position they held a hundred years ago.


The big picture, I think, is: after the boom and bust of the 60s and 70s, the humanities entered a long period of stability from about 1990 to 2010 or so. That period has ended, and now we’re entering a new one in which levels will be very different. We’ll obviously stabilize somewhere, probably in the next few years, and maybe we’ll rebound a bit, but I’d be very surprised if humanities numbers in five years were even 2/3 what they were in 2005.

There are, of course, other majors than these four. Here are all of the fields classed as “humanities” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Thanks to Rob Townsend for sending their list my way. It’s worth noting here that I developed my acquaintance with this dataset working on the first version of the humanities indicators at the Academy in 2005.) According to their taxonomy, every field but humanistic subfields of communications and linguistics (the two fields with the weakest claims to actually being “humanities”) has seen substantial drops in share since 2009.

… The decline is not strongly related to the expansion of higher ed.
“Share” can be a funny way to think about colleges, though, since the field of higher education itself is constantly expanding.

So here’s the most optimistic take I can give. It shows the 70-year story, which is full of radical ups and downs. The y-axis gives the number of degrees per one thousand 23-year-olds in the country. Since the 2011 results, the humanities have fallen from 37.1 degrees per thousand adults to 28.0 (about a 25% drop); the big four, for which I have data back to the 1940s, have fallen from 29.8 to 21.7 per thousand (a 27% drop). This exceeds all but one previous fall in humanities majors: the drop in the 1970s.

That 1970s drop, I argued, coincided with the opening of professional fields to woman and the quick deflation of the big boomer bubble of the late 1960s, in which first-generation college students seem to have piled into humanities majors at schools across the country. The question is: why the drop since 2008?

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