How Women Killed the Humanities (To Save Ourselves!)

What Women Really Think
Aug. 6 2013 1:59 PM

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. 

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.