In my last two posts, I made two claims about that aspect of the humanities "crisis:"
1) The biggest drop in humanities degrees relative to other degrees in the last 50 years happened between 1970 and 1985; the lower level over the last 25 years is not far out of line with pre-1960 levels of humanities majors (and far exceeds it if you account for population).
2) The entirety of the long term decline from 1950 to the present has to do with the changing majors of women, not of men.
To understand where the long-term parts of the crisis come from, that implies, you have to look at what women used to major in, and how those majors have changed. That's what this post is about.
Digging back into some files I made working at the American Academy's Humanities Indicators project for Malcolm Richardson and Leslie Berlowitz years ago, I found some poor but suggestive data about what women were majoring before the big humanities boom of the 60s. The exact accounting is a bit opaque to me now (some of the categories occur twice, such as education and various subfields of it, and I think MBAs may be included among the bachelor's degrees). But it gives a sense of the gender ratios and relative sizes of a number of fields before the boom.
The most interesting parts of this chart--expand to see it larger--is that in 1957, the social sciences were more than 2 to 1 male, while teaching fields were 2 to 1 female: and a number of fields were completely dominated by men, including economics, chemistry, accounting, and business—a very large field on its own, even back then—was 92% male. In the humanities, history is predominantly male, but English and foreign languages are predominantly female. "Religion" is predominantly denominational, I believe.
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OK. Fast-forward to 1966, when the computerized databases start. Here's the big-picture scheme of women's college majors from then to 2002, from an early draft of the Humanities Indicators. By "Liberal Arts," I mean basically the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Education degrees were already falling by 1965; based on the 1957 numbers, I'd guess more women were education than liberal arts majors a decade before this chart starts.
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Note here the steep decline in both education degrees and liberal arts degrees: those were female-friendly fields in the 1950s, but women abandoned them in droves after 1966 for the pre-professional fields, which had almost no women in the 1950s.
So the big story has to do with pre-professional degrees: in particular business (more than 75% of all pre-professional degrees for women), but also journalism and communications (about 20%). Before co-education, only about a tenth of pre-professional degrees went to women: after 1985, they were half. And since the whole puzzle is how women's behavior changed, not how men's majors changed, this tells you most of what you need to know.
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What about within the liberal arts? I would have thought that women left the humanities as the sciences opened up to them in the 1970s. But that's not the case: as a percentage of all liberal arts degrees, there was no relative reapportionment into the sciences. Instead, there was a drift into the social sciences, and into the nebulous category of "Interdisciplinary liberal arts" and "general liberal arts." (I have no idea what that means, but it's probably not a bad major, all told.) The sciences largely missed out on their chance to dramatically increase their percentage of women during the era of co-education, although they did get more female.
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For men, the dropoff for the humanities inside the liberal arts is not nearly so steep: the rebound doesn't capture all the reapportionment, but it does get a lot of them. The humanities actually do better than the sciences among the liberal arts; count those interdisciplinary majors as humanities, and there is no problem at all. Or remember that history only became widely identified as a
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These graphs do begin in the anomalous period of high enrollment: it's too bad I don't have them back to 1957. But given what we know from the big picture, I think it's safe to say that ostensible reason for the long-term collapse in humanities enrollment has to do with the increasing choice of women to enter more pre-professional majors like business, communications, and social work in the aftermath of a) the opening of the workplace and b) universal coeducation suddenly making those degrees relevant. You'd have to be pretty tone-deaf to point to their ability to make that choice as a sign of cultural malaise.
So what? This is all ancient history. Coeducation is no longer driving humanities enrollment trends. I keep harping on it because telling the story of a humanities "crisis" that stretches back to 1967 severely confuses things, because it tries to blame the 70s collapse on forces that are still relevant today. These are two completely different stories.
It seems totally possible to me that the OECD-wide employment crisis for 20-somethings has caused a drop in humanities degrees. But it's also very hard to prove: degrees take four years, and the numbers aren't yet out for the students that entered college after 2008. And the point of these numbers is that history isn't really much of a guide: Nate Silver's largely correct description the post-1970 numbers gives an explanation that that increases in the size of the college population lead to a smaller percentage of students majoring in the impractical humanities. Intuitively, that does feel right: but out of three 15 periods: 1955-1970, 1970-1985, and 1985-2000, it's true of only one. (It might be true of 2000-2015 as well; but it's not an infallible model, for sure.)
And even if the sky is falling right now, it's pretty important to remember that everything appeared completely normal for the humanities at the undergraduate level as recently as 2008 or 2009. The personal recollections of college of anyone over about 25 years old aren't particularly relevant for understanding what's going on in the humanities right now. The solution isn't trying to return the humanities to the 1950s; it's lessening the anxiety that makes students feel they can't afford to major in the humanities, right now. Luckily, there's some reason to believe that should be easy to do: Jordan Weissman gives some much-needed publicity to the fact that the employment numbers for humanists are in line with supposedly "practical" majors like economics or computer science. (Why is it that claims for the obsolesence of the humanities always talk about those fields, rather than the real employment utopias of nursing or education?) But there's something about the "humanities" that makes it hard for us to talk about them in anything but the most portentous ways.