Friday, September 25, 2009

Decline of the humanities

From an essay by William Chace, professor of English and former president of Wesleyan and Emory.

... Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):

English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

... Alexander W. Astin’s research tells us that in the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen reported that nothing was more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that “being very well off financially” was only an afterthought, one that fewer than 45 percent of those freshmen thought to be an essential goal. As the years went on, however, and as tuition shot up, the two traded places; by 1977, financial goals had surged past philosophical ones, and by the year 2001 more than 70 percent of undergraduate students had their eyes trained on financial realities, while only 40 percent were still wrestling with meaningful philosophies.

Regarding the last paragraph, while there has undoubtedly been a general cultural shift, it is also true that a much larger fraction of the population attends college now, with resulting decline of average cognitive ability. Perhaps the elite of the 1960s had the luxury and cognitive ability to concentrate on their philosophy of life, as opposed to earning a living; students today do not.

For more see here:

Education and Verbal Ability over Time: Evidence from Three Multi-Time Sources

Nie, Golde and Butler

Abstract: During the 20th century, there was an unprecedented expansion in the level of educational attainment in America. Using three separate measures, this paper investigates whether there was a concurrent increase in verbal ability and skills. Changes in verbal ability in the general population as well as changes in the verbal ability of graduates of different levels of education are investigated. An additional investigation of how changes in the differences between males' and females' educational attainment are associated with changes in differences between their respective verbal abilities follows. The main finding is that there is little evidence that the large increase in educational attainment has resulted in an increase in any of the measures of verbal abilities and skills.


alchemx said...

Wow, so if we don't become humanities majors we are greedy morons. All this from a professor with a tenured position. I can see the job climate and career prospects of undergrads, humanities is a moronic choice. Debt accrues quickly in undergrad, job opportunities are low (11% unemployment in Cali) and you want people to read some Shakespeare? Sallie Mae does not give a fuck, ever have someone harass you for money? Makes you feel worthless, makes that degree worthless very quickly. As a scientist who doesn't worry about Sallie Mae (but knows others) the smart thing to do is get a STEM degree, take some business classes and in your spare time away from your good job, take time to read a book and philosophize for free. There's enough humanities majors serving me breakfast, fuck em. I got more respect for the guy serving me breakfast that doesn't have that degree.

sflammia said...

" the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach..."

But come on! He just got done showing statistics that show decline across the board in the humanities, and then the rest of the article pins the blame squarely on English departments. It makes a lot more sense at first blush to look for external causes.

This article is not well reasoned.

minka said...

Interesting that this decline corresponded with the rise of absurd and mechanistic economic theories - efficient markets and rational actors. These theories, which have done so much to damage both our economy and our politics (through the policies of deregulation and pandering to economic elites), are the exact sort of nonsense which a deep study of the humanities would rule out.

SD Scientist said...

"Perhaps the elite of the 1960s had the luxury and cognitive ability to concentrate on their philosophy of life, as opposed to earning a living; students today do not"

I'd put emphasis on "luxury", not "cognitive ability". The percentage of high school students who eventually graduate from college is still below 40%. You can't make the case that our universities are filled with morons (and especially that said morons study business because they lack cognitive ability to study history!)

It is true that a typical college student is poorer today than in 1970, colleges are more expensive, and students are less likely to have the luxury to spend four years studying humanities, if it puts them into debt comparable to their parents' net worth and has no measurable benefit for their subsequent employment.

Steve Hsu said...

SD Scientist:

See discussion here; let me know if you disagree.

...There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high-school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college--enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.

SD Scientist said...

I don't disagree, but some of these percentages/IQ thresholds seem to be arbitrary. Also, IQs required to succeed in any profession depend on profession. I wouldn't recommend anyone below 130 to go into physics or math or try to become a lawyer. If you're going to study in an area where the emphasis is on memory and interpersonal skills rather than rapid and accurate cognitive processing, the threshold is much lower.

More than a quarter of all college students major in health or visual/performing arts. Is it necessary to have a high IQ to be a nurse or an actor?

Steve Hsu said...

It's true one can succeed in some majors without a lot of brainpower. But those people are probably not the type to read Proust or whose main priority in college is the development of a life philosophy :-)

That's what I meant by the comment in the original post. If 45% of HS grads attend a 4 year college then we are *way* below the 115 threshold that Murray quotes, and which was used for many years as the (rule of thumb) average IQ for college students (i.e., as in the 1960s, when not so many people attended college).

"Perhaps the elite of the 1960s had the luxury and cognitive ability to concentrate on their philosophy of life, as opposed to earning a living; students today do not."

SD Scientist said...

"If 45% of HS grads attend a 4 year college then we are *way* below the 115 threshold that Murray quotes"

According to the latest OECD estimate, the percentage of those who graduate from 4 year colleges is 36% (29% among males) Which is quite low by developed-world standards - Finland is at 47% and Australia is at 59%. Imagine how much trouble they are having educating their average students :)

Your original point still confuses me. In order to succeed in the real world, you must be born rich or you must get a really good job. If your parents are poor and yo don't graduate from college with the right degree, you could have an IQ of 190 and still end up a farmer in Missouri (*cough* Chris Langan *cough*) The only people who can afford to waste 4 years reading Proust or developing a life philosophy are the ones born rich. The percentage of those in colleges was probably higher in 1960's than it is today.

anon said...

"nothing was more important than 'developing a meaningful philosophy of life.'"

Well, except not being poor.

It is interesting how vocabulary is associated in most people's minds with education. In fact the vocabulary subtest of the WISC and the WAIS is the most reliable of all the subtests and has the highest correlation with the full-scale score.

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