Inside Higher Ed
May 15th, 2015
For decades now, humanities scholars and advocates have been talking about the “crisis” in their disciplines. If the symptoms are arguably lower enrollments, funding cuts and slashed tenure-track lines, then diagnosing the root ailment has become a kind of Rorschach test for observers, with proponents of a great books-style approach often attributing the so-called decline of the humanities to the rise of critical theory. Supporters of theory, meanwhile, say critical approaches have revitalized the liberal arts for identity-hungry students, and that the humanities are battling a larger cultural devaluation of the field.
A new book from Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at the Pennsylvania State University, and Jennifer Ruth, associate professor of English at Portland State University, is more sympathetic to the latter argument but largely turns the crisis debate on its head. The crisis in the humanities is not critical theory or lack thereof, and it’s not even numbers of majors, which fell several decades ago but have remained relatively steady since, the book says. (Citing a report by statistician Nate Silver, among other data, Bérubé and Ruth argue that the relative decline of English majors, for example, is modest considering many more students than ever before attend college; that is, numbers of English majors as a share of all majors have fallen in recent years, but English majors as a percentage of all college students has been relatively constant. In 2011, for example, 1.1 out of every 100 21-year-old graduates majored in English, versus 1.2 in 2001 and 1.3 in 1991.)