Death of Humanities? From Crisis to Blame

By Quailan Pantin, Programs Intern                                               

Speculation about declining interest in the humanities has ridden a rollercoaster of emotions and outrage. The results: Women are to blame.

The Report

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences published a commissioned report entitled The Heart of the Matter, a rallying cry to highlight the need for humanities and social science education and their role in an international society. The report outlines three contributions the humanities offer its students: improved literacy, broader education and greater nuance understanding of global cultures. In part, the commission of the report is a reaction to recent focus by educators, administrators and students on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.


Within days, several commission members wrote op-ed pieces, some reiterating the need for the humanities, others asserting that humanities has to be part of a balanced education, still others attributing the downfall to STEM initiatives and government funding. Only David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and commission member, laid blame with the field itself. Scholars in the humanities, he said, have committed suicide, and “lost faith in their own enterprise,” caring less about “truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.” According to Brooks, this stray from traditional pedagogy has contributed to the death of the humanities.

Benjamin Schmidt, Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University, argued on his blog, Sapping Attention, that the decline of the humanities is not a crisis. Anchored by data on women’s shift away from the humanities, Schmidt contends the trends were more associated with their access to new areas of study. As such, Schmidt dismisses “Brooks’ claim that undergrads are just as bored with gender studies as he is.”

Others also delved into the numbers to understand what they mean. Nora Caplan-Bricker’s New Republic article offers a historical perspective. Although Schmidt’s data “chronicles the waning power of the humanities,” she says, “they also record the rise of women, whose gains in education and the workforce are a key, and as-yet unrecognized, component of the `decline’ of the humanities.” Katy Waldman’s article, How women killed the humanities (to save ourselves!), echoes those of Caplan-Bricker’s in seeing a parallel between the “rise of women” in “traditionally `male’” dominated careers.



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