The Decline and Fall of the Humanities Major

The Greeks did not bother themselves with debating the worth of studying their myriad fields of inquiry. The enrichment of the mind, and clear societal benefits such enrichment fostered, was sufficient justification alone. Apparently, such is not the thinking during an economic crisis in modern times.

Dovetailing closely with Stanley Fish's red flag in the Times last month on perils facing the humanities, the Books section warns readers today that a liberal education may soon fall prey to the economic crisis. Professional opportunities are evaporating across the board. The MLA noted a 21 percent decline in English, literature and foreign language jobs in 2008, and prospects outside academia are equally grim.

Universities, especially ones without bottomless endowments, are increasingly asking humanities departments to justify their "practical and economic value." In short, institutions must prove to society a much stronger link between their schools of arts and sciences (arts especially) and the benefit they can deliver to the American people.

An Association of American Colleges and Universities conference at Clark University in March will address precisely this challenge. Still, detractors say making such links is a needless exercise. Former Harvard President Derek Bok noted, "there’s a lot more to a liberal education than improving the economy. I think that is one of the worst mistakes that policy makers often make..."

So big thinkers, how can we address the real challenges facing the humanities? How do we emphasize the "practical and economic value" of a foreign language degree in a nation that is largely monolingual—or where many of the most lucrative professional opportunities in foreign languages are leveraged by the military where many humanists do not quite fit in? And how do we convince universities, the final guardians of humanities at the institutional level to produce, and pay for, more humanists?

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