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The humanities aren’t dying; they’re emigrating

Humanities catastrophists are just professionally insecure

Humanities catastrophists are at it again. A New Yorker article has described the way modern students are detached from the past to a worrying extent, unable to parse sentences in The Scarlet Letter, never reading novels because they are on their phones, unwilling to commit to studying old books because it isn’t economically sensible. 

Don’t believe it. The crisis of the humanities is much over-stated.

The New Yorker says enrollments in English literature have declined by a third in the last decade. True — but that is the result of overinvestment. Humanities enrollments are back to approximately their 2000 level. It’s not the end of English literature; it’s the end of English as the default. Joel Miller noted that whilst Harvard has seen a 75 per cent drop in English majors, other colleges saw an increase.

Literature enrollments may be suffering. Literature isn’t

In 2013 — fully ten years ago — the New York Times ran a piece about declining enrollments and the way students were putting earnings ahead of humanities. That piece complained that students could no longer write “clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them”. Similar complaints were made in 2009. Remember The Closing of the American Mind, lamenting the way serious intellectual culture had left the academy? It was published in 1987.

With numbers merely returning to the level of a few years ago, we should ask — does it matter whether the humanities are amongst the most popular degree choices? A great many, if not all, of the humanities’ virtues are available outside of the university. No one doubts we need literature and history professors. The question is why the people who study great literature have to be undergraduates.

Off campus, the humanities are thriving. Go to an Interintellect salon, join the Catherine Project, check out the Read Aloud Revival or Poetry Out Loud. Read any one of the dozens of literary Substacks, including mine, which attract thousands of subscribers. Look at publishing — there are several houses now dedicated to reviving out of print classics. We are overburdened with literary periodicals. Sales of classic fiction revived during covid. Literature enrollments may be suffering. Literature isn’t. 

What is in trouble is the funding and prestige for the formal study of literature. Stephen Greenblatt, a distinguished Shakespeare professor, said as much in the New Yorker. When you are worried about loss of funding, it distorts your thinking, however. That’s why claims are made about students not being able to identify verbs in The Scarlet Letter. I simply do not believe it.

The idea that Harvard undergraduates are unable — unable — to identify the verb in the following sentence is preposterous — defying credulity almost as much as the idea that students at Harvard Medical School are unable to identify a gallbladder:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

I like to imagine a room of blank faces — the faces of the future elite lawyers, managers, marketers and lobbyists of the world’s leading economy — all frowning whilst they try and guess what it was exactly this group of men was doing, simply unable to alight on the right answer, their worries assembled on their sad, graybrows. 

The problem might run a little deeper than the ability to spot a verb

It seems more likely that they don’t want to, for reasons we can only speculate about. Learning the parts of speech isn’t much fun, after all, and at the end of it you’ll be asked to analyse The Scarlet Letter — a moral warning about the risks of cancel culture. We, too, like to shame people who do things we disapprove of — only, of course, we no longer disapprove of poor old Hester Prynne. No, I suspect the problem might run a little deeper than the ability to spot a verb.

Children can learn to identify verbs. I therefore remain confident that, if pressed, and perhaps given some remedial tuition, the finest student body in America would be able to find out what it was those bearded men were up to. It is, however, a useful cry of alarm for professors to draw attention to their cause. 

Buried in the middle of the New Yorker piece is this:

A side effect of A.S.U.’s remote-learning boom has been improvement in its humanities numbers. On paper, the number of English majors at A.S.U. has grown, even as the number of students in English classrooms has dropped … “These are people in their thirties and forties who have been stay-at-home parents, or they work. And they are committed to the humanities — they have an idea about the value of liberal-arts education,” Ayanna Thompson, the A.S.U. English professor, told me. 

So people are engaging, just different people. The great tradition of the common reader, first noted by Samuel Johnson, lives on. 

Stephen Grenblatt mused about teaching Breaking Bad instead of Shakespeare, to be more relevant. Good luck to him. If he wants to encourage students to study English literature, the answer is right there. The one legitimate cause for concern in the New Yorker article is that you can graduate in English from Harvard without studying poetry. All the while, middle-aged adults are logging on to study the old-school humanities. Like these mid-life learners, I too have been studying the humanities online. For the last few months, I have been part of a Dickens Reading Club. This, I think, provides a simple answer. If you are worried about the decline of the humanities, read a book.

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