Two recent reports on the beleaguered state of the humanities have had pundits of all stripes scrambling to explain what many see as a dismal statistic: the proportion of college students graduating with degrees in subjects like English or history has fallen to a mere 7 percent in 2010, down from 14 percent in 1966.
Is the state of the economy to blame? The obsession with the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math)? The anti-humanities rhetoricof right-wing politicians? The ideological excesses of left-wing professors?
Now one number-crunching historian has pointed the finger in an unexpected direction: women.
At the blog Sapping Attention, Ben Schmidt, a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University, notes that between 1950 and 2002, the percentage of male college students who major in the humanities nationally remained steady at roughly 7 percent. The percentage of female college students majoring in the humanities, however, fell dramatically, to 9 percent from 15 percent.
To Mr. Schmidt, this gives the lie to the idea, advanced in a recent Op-Edcolumn by David Brooks of the New York Times, that the humanities “committed suicide” by focusing on “class, race and gender” at the expense of eternal questions. Instead, he suggests (tongue in cheek), they may have been murdered by egalitarians who made other fields more welcoming to women.
Some women may have shifted to the sciences. But the biggest change, according to charts Mr. Schmidt made a few years ago as part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators Project, may be business majors.