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. 



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Dear Prudence
Sept. 18 2014 6:00 AM All Shook Up My 11-year-old has been exploring herself with my “back massager.” Should I stop her?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?