How have better career options for women affected the humanities?

It seems I can’t glance at Facebook or Twitter these days without seeing yet more links to stories about the humanities crisis. We’re doomed. The ship is sinking. Where are the students? You get the picture.

I’m leery in general of “we’re doomed, we’re all going to die” narratives. They tend to have a life of their own. And often when you look at the facts things are considerably more complicated than the simple story that’s unfolding day in and day out on both mainstream media and the university newspapers and magazines.

Here’s one wrinkle: “The supposed decline of the humanities may be little more than an increase in choice for women, who may well want to become doctors instead of, say, English teachers. There seems to be very little troubling about that.” Read Allie Jones’ piece How Expanded Choices for Women May Have Hurt the Humanities.

According to a new study by Harvard fellow Benjamin Schmidt, “The entirety of the long term decline [of the humanities] from 1950 to the present has to do with the changing majors of women.” Before the 1970s, almost all women who went to college majored in education (40 percent) or the humanities (50 percent). Second-wave feminism encouraged women to pursue pre-professional tracks as well as majors in math and science. So, naturally, there was a decline in the number of people majoring in, say, comparative literature.

See also, Is Women’s Empowerment Behind the Humanities “Crisis”?

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.”

Food for thought.

What do you think?