Nate Silver Crunches the Humanities

In the debates over the humanities that have unfolded at The Chronicle and elsewhere, the statistician Nate Silver has emerged an authority on the numerical facts. Late last month, Silver wrote a post on his FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times titled “As More Attend College, Majors Become More Career-Focused.” He cited figures from the Digest of Education Statistics demonstrating that allegations of grave decline are unjustified. In fact, looked at in the proper way, the number of students choosing English and other humanities fields is stable or only slightly falling.

Silver’s calculations have been quoted as crisp rejoinders to the pessimists in a Chronicle Review article by Michael Bérubé and a New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler called “Quants Ask: What Crisis in the Humanities?” Bérubé even asserts, tongue-in-cheek, “Nate Silver is correct approximately 100.000 percent of the time.”

But while the numbers are indisputable, their implications are not. In fact, what Silver shows and infers, we can reasonably say, actually confirms the diminishing status of the humanities in undergraduate education.

Silver’s reasoning rests on a simple substitution. When we compare the number of humanities majors with the total number of college students, we find a modest decline in the past 20 years. Not the catastrophic plunge of the 1970s, but a clear trend downward. For English majors, Silver counts a proportion of 7.6 percent 40 years ago, 4.7 percent 20 years ago, 4.1 percent 10 years ago, and 3.1 percent in 2011.

But if we change the second variable from college students to college-age adults in general, we get a different pattern. Silver sets 21-year-olds who graduate with a degree in English against the overall population of 21-year-olds in the United States and comes up with:

  • 1.1 per 100 in 2011
  • 1.2 per 100 in 2001
  • 1.3 per 100 in 1991
  • 0.7 per 100 in 1981

Here, he says, “the decline is much less distinct.” We then have a new question: not why the humanities are disappearing, but why we have different percentages when we switch the comparison group.

Because, as Silver explains, the proportion of 21-year-olds in the United States who earn degrees has shot upward, from 26.7 percent in 1971 to 43.4 percent in 2011. And the additional students (the 16-plus percent) tend to go to college for job-related reasons and to major in job-related programs. Why, then, should we blame the humanities for not attracting them?

Here is where the interpretations of Silver’s numbers diverge. The humanities-are-doing-fine crowd takes them as confirmation of its view. But an opposite conclusion is even more warranted: that Silver’s explanation doesn’t defend the humanities against charges of decline. Instead it raises troubling questions about humanities faculty and college administrators.

  • Why doesn’t this added cohort (the 16-plus percent) regard humanities courses as helping careers and producing success?
  • Why don’t all students receive ample humanities instruction before earning degrees even in vocational fields?
  • Why don’t students in first-year courses, such as freshman composition, go on to enroll in advanced courses?

Answer to Question 1: Because nobody has effectively told them so. (Humanities advocates often cite 21st-century skills and reading/writing in the workplace, but teenagers haven’t listened.)

Answer to Question 2: Because faculty and administrators don’t require them to. (Silver himself regrets that not enough students have to meet humanities-rich general-education requirements. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “What Will They Learn” project documents how meager those demands have become.)

Answer to Question 3: Because those faculty members teaching basic courses don’t inspire them to. (Students entering college with one goal often change their minds after a semester, but apparently not in the direction of the humanities. The Harvard report last month was prompted in part by the disproportionate number of students who left the humanities for other areas.)

Silver’s charts are not proof of the humanities’ steady condition, but of its feeble standing. The evidence signifies a 20-year failure. More people go to college, but they don’t think higher education includes humanities coursework.

We may speculate about the causes—humanities professors who can’t penetrate the narrow careerism of freshmen; administrators who foster a utilitarian outlook on education; an adversarial, social-critique curriculum that turns students off; an excessive focus on research—but let us at least acknowledge the bare truth of disappointment.

We may disagree about the degree of decline, but a problem exists. To recognize that is not “hand-wringing” (Schuessler) or the mutterings of “disgruntled professors” (Bérubé) or, in Ben Schmidt’s cynical words, an attempt to “sell a crisis.” (Schmidt betrays his tendentiousness by calling the humanities a “fairly healthy place through the early 2000s.”) Such characterizations pathologize the other side, treating the judgment of decline as alarm and panic. Silver’s own statistics cast them otherwise, as clearsighted determinations—and they are, in fact, the first step in bolstering the humanities in years to come.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.

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