The Shrinking Humanities Major

Historians in the News
tags: education, humanities, history crisis



To listen to many politicians, one would think talented science students are abandoning laboratories to study the humanities. In fact, it is the humanities that are losing undergraduate majors, and a new analysis from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences documents the trend.

The number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in what the academy considers core humanities disciplines (English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, classical studies, and philosophy) declined 8.7 percent from 2012 to 2014, falling to the smallest number of degrees conferred since 2003 -- 106,869. Long-term declines in humanities majors (as a share of all undergraduates) have been well documented and are due in part to trends that even humanities scholars applaud, such as the opening up of science and technology fields to women. But these data are from recent years.

The data are part of the academy's Humanities Indicators project, which seeks to provide current information on the disciplines.

As a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, the core disciplines in the humanities disciplines fell in 2014 to their lowest recorded level, 6.1 percent, in all years going back to 1948, the period for which the academy has reliable numbers. As recently as the early 1990s (well after STEM fields were open to women and many preprofessional programs grew), the equivalent figure was 8 percent. The highest level ever was 17.2 percent in 1967.

The academy also analyzed the data using a broader definition of the humanities -- including area and gender studies, some art study, and nonvocational religious studies -- used in the federal Classification of Instructional Programs. With this analysis, the share of bachelor's degrees awarded in the humanities is higher -- 9.9 percent -- but still the lowest recorded level ever. As illustrated in the chart that follows, which uses the broader definitions of humanities fields, the big winner in recent years has been the natural sciences. Business has also seen serious declines. ...




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