A report in the Atlantic tracks the decline of the humanities since the financial crisis of 2008. The decline is both in the number of students in classes and the number of majors. We’ve heard reports of this sort many times over the past few years. To its credit, this article resists going for the usual uninformative reasons for this, which tend to revolve around blaming the victim.
What seems clear here is that a large part of the decline can be attributed to people trying to calibrate their chances in the job market, and going for what they think will be the best bet upon graduation. This article shows very well that this is about perception, not reality – the stats fail to show that humanities is any less effective at preparing people for jobs, or even for getting them jobs. The decline does not seem to say anything about what students actually want to take, but rather what they think they should take in order to raise the chances of employment. One quote:
“So does the crisis in the humanities actually reflect a shift in what students want to select as a major, or is it just a change in what they think they should choose as a major? Suppose college tuition was free and every first-year had a guaranteed job lined up for after graduation. This parallel universe does exist at military-service academies—and at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs, humanities majors are at about the same level as they were in 2008.”
As advocates for the humanities have said for a long time, it is an illusion that most STEM areas or seemingly more practical areas in the university lead to reliable or high-paying jobs at a greater rate than the humanities. The statistics don’t bear it out. Other factors, as the article shows, have far more bearing on likelihood of employment than whether one majored in history or in computer science. And, it is not the case that interest in questions that the humanities deal with is waning. It is not that we no longer care about questions of history or thought or meaning. It is that we think we can handle these questions ourselves, whereas we cannot handle the issue of getting a decent job ourselves. Being a good citizen or finding meaning seems like something we can will into being, whereas no amount of will, in this age, will produce a job. The American Dream has truly died, for that’s what it was – the belief that our own will, and all that comes with it, is sufficient to produce a materially good life. You have to go to somewhere like Canada if you still want that dream.
We might think, then, that the problem is just one of marketing. We aren’t getting the message out. People aren’t understanding that, if their goal is to get a decent job, the humanities are as good a bet as anything else. And that might be true. I know my college has, in recent years, paid far more attention to marketing, and we’ll see what dividends that pays.
I’m more interested in how this phenomenon might relate to other social phenomena. The financial crash that started in 2008 is a pivotal point. What the desire on the part of students to calibrate their chances in the job market says to me is that there is a different kind of uncertainty out there than most people experienced previously in their lives. It is not unprecedented in history, of course – we went through the Great Depression and world wars. But those are the memories of a previous generation, and they found their ways to adapt to those uncertainties.
What else is happening at that time? We also have the beginning of Obama’s presidency. We also have the rise of the Tea Party and other forms of what we now call the alt-right, which has reached its apotheosis with the current president and his followers. Obama campaigned on hope, but undermined that hope in the perceived response to the financial crisis of 2008. It was the perception of his response (at least, as far as the bailouts were concerned), because much of the bailout money was paid back, and he may well have been right that there was no other option to halt the slide of the economy. It was halted, though, only for some (only the already wealthy), and it continued for many others. And, there was no symbolic response – no bankers put in jail, no collective moral statement about the causes of the crash, at the highest level of government.
So, it is no surprise that we can mark the turn towards individuals calibrating their chances in the job market to that date. Not to say that it didn’t happen before – I recall being in grad school, at the Master’s level, and wondering whether I should go on for a Ph.D. or whether I should go to law school. The second option was, after all, more secure, right? (well, not really, but that was my perception at the time). But as I thought about the kind of law I would want to do, it would have been legal theory and international law. In other words, the parts of law that look the most like philosophy. And so I realized that I really wanted to do philosophy, and I should stop kidding myself and just do it. But there was that uncertainty, and the impulse to calibrate my education to the jobs I thought were out there.
The followers of the current president are, I think, screaming at the world that this uncertainty exists, and that it is traceable back to the mis-handled crisis of 2008. The fact that people can stay so devoted, even after all the revelations about criminality around the president, even after all the moral questions and the policy outrages, says that there is a stronger force keeping them there. It is usually understood as a kind of certainty in a moral order that they think the president is going to restore, an order that will bring white male Americans back to their central place in society. And, of course, many (including me) will point out that they never lost that place, but that’s beside the point, because this is about how people feel, not what reality is. And so there are ridiculously oversimplified solutions to perceived problems – walls against immigrants, guns everywhere, exploitation of all land for commerce, and the rest – which give a sense that the uncertainty of the world can be controlled. At the same time, there is a sense that one’s inner sense of meaning really is paramount, and admitting that we live in a society of difference rather than one that has some imagined core which has its best representation in the lives, loves, and appetites of white men is too difficult and a moral affront. Clarity is what is needed in an uncertain age.
But it is clarity that we can only have in hindsight, not in foresight. We tell the Whiggish stories about the triumphs of the great and the good, but these are all after the fact. We want to reduce uncertainty, to live in certainty (that is, after all, what evangelicalism offers, and what makes it immune to discussion with anything different from itself). That is what students want when they calibrate their chances in the job market – what will give me certainty, or the closest thing to it? That is what the followers of the president want – easy answers to complex problems, the end of uncertainty.
The fact that students are looking away from the humanities is, in other words, more than just a marketing problem. We know the stats and the facts – the humanities are not, in fact, a substantially worse bet for finding jobs. Other factors figure much more significantly; there is a prevailing illusion to those areas that are perceived as guaranteed to provide jobs; the jobs that seem to have guarantees might not be the jobs that people really want to be in, judging from the attrition rates in some of those areas. But countering those misperceptions will only take us part of the way, because it doesn’t deal with an underlying truth. That is this: the crash shook this generation to its core, perhaps even more than what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. Or, the events of 9/11 set the moral and existential reality of uncertainty before us, which the crash of 2008 drove home at a personal level.
The question, then, is this: how does one deal with uncertainty? There are several options. You can try to diminish it, by setting some preconditions that diminish and shape the noise of the world (that’s the evangelical answer). You can try to control it, even dominate it (a common response, one that can be seen in the idea that you can create your reality). You can try to ride it by placing your best bet on what seems like a sure thing (that’s the economist’s answer, and in a way what students are doing by betting on a discipline to provide a job whether or not that’s what they really want to study). Or you can try to respond to it more quickly and more flexibly, recognizing that we can’t entirely prepare in advance for the unexpected, but we can develop the intellectual and practical skills to react to change.
The humanities don’t have a monopoly on flexibility, but that is what they train people for. The problem is, flexibility is hard to measure and hard to give credit to. We hear from the famous people in business, and those with a humanities background often tell us how important that was for their success. And no one, it seems, takes that seriously. Why? Because what was important about it is often unquantifiable. It is the ability to face uncertainty and creatively respond to it. Assessment mechanisms can’t pick that up, because assessment is based on a continued pattern of improvement in a particular direction.
The real challenge for the humanities, in other words seems to me to be that its greatest strength is also its hardest quality to describe or promote. And yet, in a world more uncertain than ever, in the aftermath of the crash of 2008, its greatest strength is more needed than ever. The loudest people out there are the ones who claim to have answers, but they are rarely the ones honest enough to admit that uncertainty can’t be controlled, can’t be wished away through magical thinking, and can’t be bargained with. It can only be responded to creatively. The education needed is in that creative type of response, the ability to adapt and think through things again and again.