The decline in student interest is recent, and particularly affects elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, says Bass professor of English Louis Menand. (His 2008 lectures at the University of Virginia, collected in The Marketplace of Ideas, trace the long-term national decline in the humanities since the early 1970s.) The current crisis is “continuous with that [national] story” of polarizing and contentious philosophical debates about the legitimacy of various subjects and approaches, but those conflicts, he says, “were never accompanied by a huge flight of students.” Now, “the numbers are a little alarming. From 2006 to 2012 we had a 35 percent drop in concentrators in English. I think history has also had a fairly dramatic drop. And when sophomores signed up for concentrations last fall, almost every department in the arts and humanities was down—some by a lot.” In five departments, there were fewer than half as many concentrators as among the previous class.
The reasons for waning student interest are not entirely clear. The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, a report of the Humanities Project published in the spring of 2013 that included a quantitative study of the problem, revealed a 50 percent attrition rate among Harvard students who as pre-freshmen had expressed an intention to concentrate in the humanities. Most of those students defect to social sciences such as economics, government, and psychology. Menand believes that this trend is partly attributable to “what has become a kind of general conventional wisdom: that the humanities don’t offer people much that is practical in way of a career. And that is a little scary.” But because this has all happened since the recession, he says, “The hope is that these choices are tied to the economy,” and that with rising prosperity, interest will rebound.
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