How the Crisis of the Humanities Is Like the Greek Economy

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

November 15, 2015

I know. Yet another piece on the "crisis of the humanities." Those of us who tend the gardens on that side of campus are all too familiar with the symptoms of this crisis: shrunken departments and an increased reliance on academic day laborers; witheringly bad job prospects for our Ph.D. students; tumbleweeds blowing through our empty classrooms. 

It’s that latter symptom, though, that precipitates all the others. Without undergraduates in the seats, humanities departments find their budgets cut, their requests to hire new faculty denied, and graduate students facing grim prospects as every other department in the country also finds its request for new faculty denied because of declining enrollments … wash, rinse, repeat.

There has been plenty of speculation about the drop in enrollments across humanities disciplines. A popular explanation runs that those in the Great Recession generation (and perhaps more to the point, their parents) want practical education that will translate immediately into comfortable jobs. Goodbye, classics; Hello, marketing! 

Another explanation I’ve heard, sotto voce, is that after a generation of poststructural and postmodern self-indulgence, those of us teaching in humanities programs have become tediously tendentious or just polysyllabically dull. Students who had hoped that the humanities might help them figure out the meaning of the life and the contours of the human experience find themselves baffled, bothered, and bewildered when their professors ask them instead for Lacanian readings of YouTube videos. Faced with these kinds of courses, the argument goes, students vote with their feet, trotting briskly out of the humanities building and over to, say, communication or political science.

The elephant in the seminar room, however, is that the educational system itself is structured in a way that encourages students to stay away from the humanities. We’ve been set up for failure.

Adding insult to injury, the disappearance of students from history and classics, from literature and philosophy, has been treated as a problem for departments themselves to solve — by working harder to attract students, offering sexier courses, making it easier to become a major. After all, undergraduate education is a free market of curricular offerings, and humanities departments have lost market share to other places on campus by failing to compete. 

But on campus, just as in the rest of the world, there is no such thing as a "free market" (except maybe in the parlor-room games of some economists). All markets are structured in some way. Those structures are shaped by political processes of one kind or another, and that structuring, in turn, creates winners and losers. In the current market conditions, humanities departments have been structured for failure, and like those Greek pensioners being lectured by Angela Merkel, we’ve been told it’s our fault.

For those of us at public institutions at the mercy of vindictive state legislatures, the deck has been stacked against the humanities by a set of mandates. Take "dual enrollment" courses, for example. These were created to allow small numbers of students to get college credit in specially designed high-school courses. Recently, however, they have exploded as legislatures have made it easier and easier for students to get dual-enrollment credit, including removing caps on the number of dual- enrollment courses a student can take and by eliminating student and textbook fees for the courses.

As Alex Lichtenstein, a historian at Indiana University at Bloomington, pointed out recently in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives magazine, just 132 students took dual-enrollment courses in Indiana 10 years ago. Today the number is well into the thousands, though the quality control for these courses hasn’t kept up. 

Even worse, in a growing number of states — 17 and counting — students who don’t want the hassle of dual-enrollment courses can simply get a 3 on the Advanced Placement test to receive college credit — an idea that must have been piloted in Lake Wobegon. Does anyone really believe that a 3 on this exam is a genuine substitute for college work? I doubt it, but for politicians who object to the humanities on principle (and, not incidentally, for the College Board), "AP3" is the gift that keeps on giving.

States legislators love AP3 because it amounts to a kind of higher-education outsourcing. Texas Representative John Zerwas, the sponsor of a new AP3 law, helpfully cuts to the chase describing the legislation’s real purpose: "Students could hypothetically enter college with a full semester’s credit if they complete the core curriculum classes through the AP exam route," he said. 

Exactly. And lo and behold, as Lichtenstein reports from Indiana, enrollments in history survey courses there have dropped from 1,700 to 500 since 2009. Those numbers are surely representative of history and English enrollments — the two programs I suspect have been hit hardest by AP3 — in public universities around the country. According to 2014 data from the College Board, U.S. History and English are far and away the most popular AP exams. More than 462,000 students took the AP U.S. History exam last year, while a few more than 117,000 took Macroeconomics. More than twice as many students got at least a 3 on the U.S. History exam in 2014 as took the Physics B exam.

The crisis of the humanities undoubtedly has many causes. It is, indeed, a market crisis, but not one of our own making, nor is it one we humanists can solve by offering newer, sexier courses, or even by promising free doughnuts to students who enroll in our old ones. Belt-tightening isn’t the answer, either. 

The only way to solve the problem is to restructure the market — to push back against AP3, dual enrollments, and don’t get me started on the online courses from the Arthur Murray Dance Studio and School of Humanities, for which students now get college credit. This pushback can be accomplished through changes in general education and graduation requirements that level this unlevel field. Until that happens, the crisis isn’t going to go away.

Steven Conn is a professor of history at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio.