A Market Correction in the Humanities — What Are You Going to Do with That?

Leigh Claire La Berge in the LA Review of Books:

A RECENT SPATE of both liberal arts school and art school closings has reintroduced a sometimes dormant but never forgotten question: are the humanities entering their death throes? Seemingly in decline since Socrates was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens, the long arc of the humanities nadir has assumed multiple trajectories of near-defeat since its 19th-century institutionalization in American universities. Sick of the humanities’ attachment to Classics, in 1902 Andrew Carnegie complained that, “while the college student has been learning a little about the barbarous and petty squabbles of a far-distant past, or trying to master languages which are dead, such knowledge seems adapted for life upon another planet.” Then emerged the “culture wars” of the 1980 and ’90s. That period saw humanistic disciplines regularly degraded in national media and campus novels as little more than a site of performative nonsense and grotesquerie undertaken by overly entitled women, queers, and people of color.

Now we have a different, perhaps more empirical, narrative of humanistic decline: the financial/demographic one. This logic holds that the humanities, particularly as offered in liberal arts schools, are not cost-effective at scale. Even worse, that scale itself is dwindling along with the country’s college-age population: a million fewer students were enrolled in US higher education in 2018 than were in 2011.

More here.