The cartoon cover of a 1935 issue of The Princeton Tiger humor magazine showed Depression-era graduates lined up at commencement to be handed a loaf of bread with every liberal-arts diploma. A few months later, the university's alumni magazine reported on students' shifting academic interests in a table titled, "Trend Away From the Humanities." Majors in those disciplines were down by nearly a third from the go-go years of the "roaring twenties."
The humanities eventually regained their popularity, and enrollments peaked around 1971, following a period of economic growth in the 1960s. Then came "stagflation" and the prolonged bear market on Wall Street that accompanied it. Down went humanities degrees as well, until a bull market started its run in the early 1980s. After a bit of a lag, the humanities became popular yet again until recent times, when, just as we seem to be getting over the crash of 2008, we have discovered (as if for the first time) a "trend away from the humanities."
Maybe there is a correlation here. As Americans' stock portfolios go up, so does their interest in the humanities. Then, when the bears dominate Wall Street, there is an accompanying bear market for the humanities. Perhaps, one might hypothesize, there is even a cause-and-effect relationship.
We ought not to leap to conclusions, of course. But it is worth considering: Is it possible that the humanities cause economic decline? Perhaps all those humanities majors spent too much time with Aquinas instead of accounting, and, before you know it, we're in the midst of the Great Depression.
Or perhaps causation runs the other way. In difficult financial times, students (and their parents) might tend to seek out courses of study that increase their chances of gainful employment. In the 1930s, Princeton's engineers tripled from the 1920s, while enrollments in English, art, and classics dropped sharply. That we've seen similar shifts in more-recent economic downturns may not so much signal the much-discussed "crisis of the humanities" as simply reflect a reasonably predictable reaction to tough times.
The good news, for those of us who believe in the importance of the humanities, is that once the bread lines disappear, people realize that they cannot live by bread alone. The important questions addressed in religion, literature, the arts, and elsewhere in the humanities will always captivate us, and we will continue to return to them when we can.
It seems unlikely—at least to me, a businessman with a doctorate in religion—that an oversupply of people studying the humanities actually causes economic decline. But hard times will very likely—and predictably—drive students toward fields that seem more practical. When that happens, the humanities should not, as the politicians say, let a good crisis go to waste. We need to make better arguments for the benefits of studying the humanities, and, in doing so, we need to think more carefully about where the humanities and the "real world" intersect. It happens far more often than might be expected by either side.
Humanities scholars often cite the intrinsic value of studying the humanities—that it is good in and of itself, and requires no defense on the basis of pragmatism. That may well be true, but the humanities also have immense practical relevance to how we, as a society, make some of our most critical political and economic decisions, from the nature of our constitutional rights to the shape of our health-care system.
For example, the opinions in the Supreme Court's recent decision on the right to bear arms read like a history of firearms in the 18th century, and we owe the idea of a wall of separation between church and state as much to the historian George Bancroft as to Thomas Jefferson. The Affordable Care Act has deeper roots in philosophical notions of distributive justice than in the latest advances in medical science.
If anything, these kinds of societal choices become even more challenging during hard times, which is why we need to keep beating the drum for the importance of the humanities, lest this crisis really does become the last one.