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?

9 thoughts on “How have better career options for women affected the humanities?

  1. Jeeez! what else are they going to blame on women’s lib!? How about blaming men for never having given the humanities their due importance in the first place?…for neglecting their, and humanity’s, spirituality all in the name of technology and science?

  2. My sense isn’t that anyone is blaming women. Rather, the claim is that talk of a 50 year downward spiral is mistaken. It’s a story that can be told another way, as a story about increasing career and educational choices for women. At my university the enrolment in the faculty of arts and humanities is more than 70 percent female. That’s not healthy either.

  3. There are similar stories told about decline in quality (according to some measures) in school teachers and nurses, too. (The most common measure is test scores for people entering a major. Obviously, that’s a pretty imperfect measure of the quality of nurses or teachers, but might tell us something.) A normal story is that many quite smart women who, in the past, would have become school teachers or nurses, went on to become doctors, lawyers, university professors, or something like that as more options opened to them. And, of course, good for them. I have never taken these accounts to be about blame, simply explanation. Whether anyone has tried to figure this out with any rigor I don’t know- the accounts I’ve seen have been largely conjectural but not implausible.

  4. This is all making my head hurt. How can there be a 50 downward spiral caused by women having more options, when in many colleges and universities women weren’t admitted 50 years ago?

    From a wiki episode in accuracy:

    Historically, many colleges in the United States were gender-segregated. Northwestern University and Washington University in St. Louis were some of the first men’s colleges to begin admitting women, doing so in 1869.[1][2] However, mixed-sex education did not become the norm until much later. Notably, Wesleyan University began to admit women in 1872, but abandoned the practice in 1912, when it became all-male once again, and would not admit women again until 1972.[3]
    By the 1960s, and particularly in 1969, most of the remaining male-only institutions began to admit women, including Georgetown University, Princeton University and Yale University. Columbia College of Columbia University held out even longer, and did not admit women until 1983, three years after Haverford College admitted its first female students. By that point, most men’s colleges had already disappeared from the American academic landscape.

  5. I’m not sure, Anne, but I expect that the trend you note is limited to “elite” private universities, which have not educated the majority of people for a long, long time. And, in many of those cases, there were “related” women’s colleges- Barnard at Columbia, etc., so that excerpt will be misleading on the larger picture unless those are taken into account. We’d want to know what the women at Barnard, Radcliff, Bryn Mawr, etc. were studying in the past as compared to now to know how plausible the account is. (I’m certainly not sure this story is right, but I don’t think it’s discredited by the fact that a select few colleges that educate a really, really small percentage of people in US only recently admitted women, especially when we take into account the related women’s schools.)

  6. Matt, I’m not totally certain. I suspect there were more single-sex colleges and universities than one might think. But also, one wonders how the statistics are collected. Here I just don’t know. A recently article in the NY Times seems to be thinking in terms of specific institutions, and the elites are important in their reporting:

    The decline is also supposed to be in other countries too, I think. But Oxford (and probably Cambridge) were mostly male until the mid-seventies or later. (In Oxford there was something like 1 woman to every 6 men.)

    What may be the case is that the decline over the last 25 years is a lot more steep than that of the last 50 years. Over the last 25 years, institutions may fairly seldom be single-sex.

  7. While I think that the historical facts behind the claim may need some refinement, it is true that study of the Humanities was historically associated with women’s colleges, and therefore the claim that the reduction of interest in the Humanities on part of students may be partially the result by increasing gender diversity in other disciplines. But I think that, even if this is true, it is at best a small part of the larger story — a story in which many other socioeconomic factors (such as race and class), as well as the public narratives surrounding higher education with inevitably play a dominant role.

    To the historical piece, Florida State University (where I did my BA and MA) was, at one point in history, Florida State Women’s College. FlaStaWoCo emphasized the Humanities disciplines — which is often taken to explain FSU’s strong humanities programs (theatre, music, English, creative writing, philosophy, classics, etc.) today. At the same time, University of Florida, the sibling male university, emphasized the sciences, medicine, and law, which is often taken to explain its strengths today (Law School, Medical School, Engineering, Pharmacy School, Vet School, agriculture & engineering programs). How much of this is actually true, I’m not sure — but this is the story that is often told.

    But, from teaching in a community college, I can think of no better explanation than other socioeconomic factors. College populations are increasingly diverse, and I think typically disadvantaged populations, while they are not necessarily less interested in the humanities, view college more as an engine for upward mobility and a source of economic independence/elevation, and less as a pleasurable interlude for intellectual engagement. This isn’t to say I think these populations are less interested in subjects like philosophy (which many of my students report finding very interesting and enjoyable, and our arts and humanities courses are very popular, and we definitely having thriving programs across the humanities), but that the serious pursuit of these studies carries considerable economic risks not associated with, say, a 2 year degree in Nursing or Computer Science or Paralegal Studies, especially for students who are taking on considerable debt for a 2 year degree. The perceived economic risk (however it relates to reality) of undertaking to study the humanities plus the increasing socioeconomic diversity of the university does overlap partially with the claim “more diverse options reduce interest in the humanities” to the extent that as disadvantaged groups took increasing advantage of higher education as a path to socioeconomic parity, those choices would have been driven more by the practical concerns and less by sheer intellectual interest.

  8. Sabrina: you offer a brilliant analysis. I fully agree. The relative neglect of the humanities today reflects the dire economic situation everywhere. It simply doesn’t emerge as economically viable in today’s extremely materialistic world, to invest every penny you have in becoming a writer, (‘thinker’), or teacher, (even in college) when every practical way of economic survival points away from there toward the corporations and what THEY are wanting to hire and promote………….

    Back in the 60’s, there was no such pressure, even coming from a lower-middle class income level. For example, NYC residents were offered all undergraduate studies free of charge in the sprawling, high-level city university, and pressure to choose ‘something practical’ was unheard of. Today’s reality is very very different, especially for middle classes, as we all know so well.

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