For the Humanities, Some Good News Is Mixed With the Bad

April 13, 2015

In an otherwise grim picture of the field of humanities, there are still a few bright spots: Financial support for academic research in the humanities, which is typically dwarfed by spending to support other fields, has increased in recent years, and there are signs of rising interest in the humanities at the high-school and community-college levels.

Those are some of the findings in a report released on Monday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The report takes the temperature of the humanities in higher education and doesn’t come to any sweeping conclusions, said Robert B. Townsend, director of the academy’s office in Washington. Instead, it’s meant to provide a more-complete picture of the humanities at a time when they are often portrayed as "beleaguered and declining," the report says.

The frequent hand-wringing about the humanities’ status in higher education has included concerns about financial support, enrollments, and postgraduate employment and earnings.

Even private nonprofit colleges, where the humanities have typically been strong, saw the share of undergraduate humanities degrees awarded sink in 2013 to its lowest point since at least 1987, according to the report.

The percentage of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities has dropped about two percentage points from 2007 to 2013, when it hit 10.4 percent.

However, in 2013, about 25 percent of second majors were in the humanities.

That number shows a "bigger picture that gets lost when people just focus on the first majors," Mr. Townsend said.

There is little decline in the number of humanities departments, the report notes. Still, 6 percent of all humanities departments in the academy’s survey stopped granting a degree at some level.

Pre-Baccalaureate Interest

The report reiterates the academy’s findings of brighter news for the humanities at the community-college level: The share of associate degrees either earned in a humanities discipline or in one that required a large amount of humanities classes has increased in both 2012 and 2013.

In fact, the humanities’ share of all associate degrees was about four times as large as the share of all bachelor’s degrees, the report says.

Still, those students aren’t specializing in humanities in the same way as a student who’s taking upper-level courses as part of his or her major, Mr. Townsend said.

It’s a "slightly tricky case," he said, adding that the significance of that disparity is an area for further research.

There has also been a significant rise in the number of high-school students taking Advanced Placement exams in the humanities, as compared with other fields. In 2013, more than 1.8 million AP exams in the humanities were taken, compared with about 600,000 exams in the natural sciences, for example.

The relationship between trends in high school and in college hasn’t been fully studied, the report notes.

Mr. Townsend speculated that one reason for the contrast between the rise in AP exams and the decline in bachelor’s degrees could be related to students’ earning high scores on the exams, placing them out of general-education requirements in the humanities.

Losing early exposure to the humanities at the college level, he said, "could be channeling students away from that long-term relationship" with the disciplines.