Diversity: A Solution to the Decline of the Humanities?

Last year, a study found that the number of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities had “declined 8.7 percent from 2012 to 2014, falling to the smallest number of degrees conferred since 2003 — 106,869.” 8.7 percent over two years may not seem especially alarming, but this is part of a larger trend. According to the Humanities Indicators project, which provides current statistics on several academic disciplines, the humanities have been in at least ten consecutive years of decline.

As of 2017, among all disciplines in the humanities (including Area Studies; Communications; Cultural, Ethnic, and Gender Studies; English Language and Literature; General Humanities/Liberal Studies; History; Languages and Literatures Other than English; Linguistics; Philosophy; Religion; Study of the Arts; and Other Humanities Disciplines) the only discipline that has experienced increase in number of bachelor’s degrees awarded recently had been Communications.

What explains these troubling trends? Explanations range from funding cuts in humanities programs to a decreasing relevancy of the humanities in contemporary society. Still, maybe these statistics are no surprise. Humanities disciplines often fill the space on lists titled things like “The 10 Worst College Majors” and “Top 10 Worthless College Majors of 2017.” Ultimately, it seems that students believe that they are more likely to get a higher paying job after college with a degree in STEM than with a degree in the humanities.

One persisting (and logical) explanation about the decline in the humanities is that universities have begun to value and promote STEM fields and their lucrative outcomes more and thus have cut

Photo from Doodling for Academics: A coloring and activity book by Julie Schumacher with illustrations by Lauren Nass

funding from departments like English and History and increased funding for departments like Engineering and Computer Science. Anyone who has been in the ivory tower of academia is familiar with this story. Recently, I was in a bookstore with a friend of mine who has her PhD in Physics. We found a coloring book from Chicago University Press (yes, a coloring book from Chicago University Press!) called Doodling for Academics. One page, titled “Financial Priorities,” depicts two buildings and invites the reader to color the humanities building and the science lab, clearly a satirical jab at the trends in the funding disparities between these disciplines. We had a laugh at the book, but it did draw attention to some important and serious issues, including the decline in the humanities.

The issues of funding and career prospects have led humanities programs around the country to do some “soul-searching,” adapting their programs to integrate the sciences, improving viable career path opportunities, and altering the curriculum to include popular courses that emphasize things like science fiction and fantasy. Still, I would suggest that one of the most important (and too often overlooked) changes humanities fields can make is transforming itself to foster diversity. As former English department chair at the University of Maryland, Kent Cartwright, told Inside Higher Ed, “We need to be a little more pragmatic about what works, and what we can do and what students care about, and direct our energies there… Students are interested in identity issues and social issues and gender and race.”

I am not suggesting that considering identity and social issues will be a magic solution to make the humanities rebound from their decades-long decline. However, I do believe that creating humanities programs that welcome and foster the diversity of human experiences will only enhance the field, attract more students, and attract diverse students.

Universities as a whole and the humanities specifically need to do more than give lip service to a commitment to diversity; they need to show that they value diversity through their actions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available), White males still hold the majority of faculty positions. And when White males and females are taken into account, faculty of color make up only single-digit percentages of the professoriate. The humanities follow similar patterns. At Brown University in the 2015-2016 academic year, for example, over 60 percent of all humanities faculty were White, and for full professors, the number rises to 82 percent. These data align with the national trend of (slowly but surely) increasing the number of diverse faculty, but not in tenure track positions. Diverse faculty can not only attract a more diverse student body, they can also improve student engagement and retention, both of which are necessary if the humanities are to recover.

Let me get a little anecdotal. I remember when I asked my English advisor for a letter of recommendation for Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. “You want to be the only spec of brown in there?” he asked, incredulously. I hadn’t even thought about that. In truth, my entire program was largely composed of White students and White faculty. I can count on one hand the number of English majors I knew who were students of color.

And have you ever wondered why courses like “18th Century British Literature,” “Victorian Poetry,” “Shakespearean Tragedies,” and “Antebellum American Literature” are all heavily emphasized and often required courses in English programs, but a course like “Diaspora Literature” only comes around once every few years as an elective? I know I have. While I focus on English courses here, these trends are present in other humanities disciplines as well. History departments are too often Eurocentric, telling the story of the winners of history like European imperialists and American benefactors of “manifest destiny,” and philosophy programs tend to emphasize White, male thinkers from ancient Greece and the European Enlightenment.

The lack of diversity in my English program bothered me more and more, and when I thought about whether to pursue higher education in English or in International Studies the lack of diversity in the humanities was one factor that largely contributed to my decision to pursue International Studies.

I am currently teaching a new generation of students who are up-and-coming, on their way to enter universities. I teach in a program for disadvantaged youth, and many of my students are minorities and/or from immigrant families. While many students thought that English Language Arts was their least favorite subject, through being exposed to the possibilities of creating meaningful ways to share their own voices, they seem to have changed their minds. My students have produced beautiful stories and artwork about their cultures in my “Intro to Global Studies” course, and they wrote deep poetry about their family heritages in their “Contemporary Poetry” class. These students have found their voices in writing, and they are powerful.

And yet I wonder, should they choose to pursue studies in the humanities, will their voices be welcomed?

The humanities claim to be about the human experience, but too often, they are about the White, male experience. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that race, gender, and class are some trifecta that will draw students in if only we can incorporate them. However, I am suggesting that showing students how the humanities actually relate to their lives is important and absolutely vital for the field.

If the humanities want to recover from their decade-long decline, these disciplines must adapt to foster a diverse array of human experiences.

Denise Muro is a recent graduate of the University of Wyoming with an MA in International Studies and a graduate minor in Gender and Women’s Studies. She also holds a BA in International Affairs and a BA in English from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where she worked in refugee resettlement at the Global Refugee Center. Her research focuses on contemporary asylum seekers and refugees in Germany and conceptions of and approaches to integration. She will begin her PhD in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston in the fall of 2017. If you would like to be considered or would like more information on contributing, please email us at Ask@thinkwy.org