The XX Factor

How Women Killed the Humanities (To Save Ourselves!)

A woman scans shelves of weird artifacts, looking for meaning

Photo by Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

This has been the summer of requiems for the humanities. Across the web, liberal arts professors have published distressed think pieces about how no one cares about War and Peace anymore (our attention spans are too short) and how we are too preoccupied with making money to want to cultivate our souls. Only seven percent of today’s college graduates majored in the humanities, David Brooks fretted, compared to 14 percent 50 years ago. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences joined the chorus with a 90-page report pleading for the continued relevance of these disciplines, which it called “a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.”

But according to Nora Caplan-Bricker of The New Republic, behind the narrative about the decline of the humanities is a much brighter one about “the rise of women.” Caplan-Bricker is working from a blog post by Harvard visiting fellow Benjamin Schmidt, who spent two years at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences analyzing men and women’s bachelor’s degrees from 1965 to 2005. He found that almost the entire drop in humanities B.A.s that occurred from the early 1970s to the mid-’80s (the big nosedive that spooked all the commentators) was attributable to women enrolling in other majors. And this reflected not a shriveling of the human spirit, but society’s growing acceptance of women in business, law, medicine, and other traditionally “male” professions. Caplan-Bricker explains:

Before second-wave feminism and the major civil rights legislation of the early ’70s…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.

Caplan-Bricker is careful to point out that the number of men in the humanities has fallen slightly too—by about one-sixth in the past 50 years. Perhaps the recession has ushered students into disciplines that are perceived as more practical. Perhaps the academy’s focus on “political and social categories like race, class and gender” rather than “the old notions of truth, beauty and goodnesshas alienated certain idealistic young people. But if so, the effect is far less sweeping and dire than all the funeral orations might lead us to believe. It’s not that the humanities are dying; it’s that women have more options. And that is good for them, and for men, and War and Peace will be fine.