You’ve probably heard the baleful reports. The number of college students majoring in the humanities is plummeting, according to a big study released last month by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The news has provoked a flood of high-minded essays deploring the development as a symptom and portent of American decline.
But there is another way to look at this supposed revelation (the number of humanities majors has actually been falling since the 1970s).
The bright side is this: The destruction of the humanities by the humanities is, finally, coming to a halt. No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature. No longer will the reading of, say, “King Lear” or D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” result in the flattening of these transfiguring encounters into just two more elements in an undergraduate career—the onerous stuff of multiple-choice quizzes, exam essays and homework assignments.
The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist’s chair. In their numbing hands, the term “humanities” became code for “and you don’t even have to show up to get an A.”
When people wax plaintive about the fate of the humanities, they talk, in particular, about the slow extinction of English majors. Never mind that the preponderance of English majors go into other fields, such as law or advertising, and that students who don’t major in English can still take literature courses. In the current alarming view, large numbers of people devoting four years mostly to studying novels, poems and plays are all that stand between us and sociocultural nightfall.
The remarkably insignificant fact that, a half-century ago, 14% of the undergraduate population majored in the humanities (mostly in literature, but also in art, philosophy, history, classics and religion) as opposed to 7% today has given rise to grave reflections on the nature and purpose of an education in the liberal arts.
Such ruminations always come to the same conclusion: We are told that the lack of a formal education, mostly in literature, leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty and goodness.
These solemn anxieties are grand, lofty, civic-minded, admirably virtuous and virtuously admirable. They are also a sentimental fantasy.
The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.