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Today In Erroneous, But Politically Convienient, Narratives


You know that ongoing decline in humanities enrollments that you’re heard so much about that?  Well, the World’s Most Dangerous Postmodern Opponent of Truth, Beauty and Reason would like to interject some facts into the discussion:

There’s only one problem with those insistent accounts of the decline of the humanities in undergraduate education: They are wrong. Factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong.

I have been trying to point this out for years, using “numbers” and “arithmetic,” but it appears that the decline in humanities enrollments is universally acknowledged. Everyone simply knows that it has happened, just as everyone knows about that feminist who burned her bra while spitting on the soldier returning from Vietnam.

Now, as it happens, there was a decline in bachelor’s degrees in English, just as there was a drop-off in humanities enrollments more generally. But it happened almost entirely between 1970 and 1980. It is old news. Students are not “now making the jump” to other fields, and it is not “getting worse.” It is not a “recent shift.” There is no “steady downward spiral.” It is more like the sales of Beatles records—huge in the 60s, then dropping off sharply in the 70s.

And why does that matter? Because many of the accounts of the decline of the humanities are tendentious. Even when they are couched as defenses of study in the humanities, as Brooks’s column was, they are attacks on current practices in the humanities—like the study of race, class, gender, and other boring things. Or the rise of “theory.” Or the study of popular culture. Or the preponderance of jargon. Or the fragmentation of the curriculum. Or my colleague down the hall, whose work I never liked and who is probably undermining the English major as I type.

But most of the things blamed for the decline in enrollments happened after the decline in enrollments had stopped. Theory, race/gender/class/sexuality, jargon, popular culture … those things were hard to find in humanities departments in the 1970s. They became part of the fabric of the material in our end of campus in the 1980s and 1990s.

And a funny thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s: Enrollments crept back up a bit.

Related: this classic template for writing a conservative critique of education. Most immediately relevant:

A condemnation of all academic subjects that include the word “Studies” in the field name. Include the silliest-sounding title of a queer-studies workshop that you can find. Bonus points if the title includes something about people “of color” or Arabs. A discussion of how well-received this workshop was by the campus community is of course unnecessary. If you wish, however, you may mention this. If the event was well-attended, that’s evidence that higher education, across the board, is in shambles. If it was poorly attended, that’s evidence that students have heard the conservative message, while administrators fight the good fight for PC.

Lip service must be paid to the Great Books. It’s best to say as little about any particular books as possible. Revealing the specifics means a) having read them, and b) articulating why Aristotle matters more than Toni Morrison. This is not necessary, because for your audience this is already assumed. Neither you, the author, nor your audience need read either.

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