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Is Women's Empowerment Behind the Humanities "Crisis"?

Two hefty, anxious reports have this summer charted the decline of the humanities over the last several decades (setting off many dirges). But like most data sets, these numbers tell more than one story. They may chronicle the waning power of the humanities, but they also record the rise of women, whose gains in education and the workforce are a key, and as-yet unrecognized, component of the “decline” of the humanities.

“The entirety of the long term decline from 1950 to the present has to do with the changing majors of women,” writes Benjamin Schmidt, a graduate student in history at Princeton and a visiting fellow at Harvard. Schmidt lays out this theory on his blog, Sapping Attention, where he analyzes data he collected when he worked at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 2003 to 2005. In the years the humanities took their biggest nosedive, from the early ’70s through the mid-’80s, nearly all the students flocking to other disciplines were women.

Before second-wave feminism and the major civil rights legislation of the early ’70s ushered women into business and law firms, medical schools, and the like, nearly every college student with two X chromosomes majored in education (about 40 percent) or in the humanities (close to 50 percent). In 1966, on the cusp of major changes, under 10 percent of pre-professional degrees went to women. As social movements opened doors outside the academy, a landslide occurred within it. The number of women majoring in the humanities dropped by half between the mid-’60s and early-2000s. The flip side is that today, women make up about half of all pre-professional degrees. Meanwhile, the number of men in the humanities has dropped as well, but only by about one-sixth over the last half century. “You'd have to be pretty tone-deaf to point to [women’s] ability to make that choice as a sign of cultural malaise,” Schmidt observes.

This doesn’t negate concerns about the current state of the humanities, or the slight but noteworthy losses they seem to have experienced in the last decade. But it does raise questions about the 50-year-corrosion narrative, which has taken on a life of its own. Schmidt writes on his blog, “telling the story of a humanities ‘crisis’ that stretches back to 1967 severely confuses things, because it tries to blame the ’70s collapse on forces that are still relevant today. These are two completely different stories.”

This fits into Schmidt’s larger argument against overblown humanities angst. He has pointed out that most handwringing analyses start in the mid-’60s, because that’s when we started digitizing data, but those years were actually an anomalous boom-time for the humanities. Enrollment numbers today are lower than in the ’50s, but not by nearly so much. Separating the history of the humanities into different episodes, including the narrative of women’s empowerment that Schmidt has illuminated, leaves us with a far less grandiose story to tell, but a more accurate one.

Image via Shutterstock. Charts courtesy of Benjamin Schmidt.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.