Over the past few months there has been a marked increase in stories about the decline of the humanities in higher education. Sometimes the coverage emerges from a particular political vantage point: The humanities are dying because they have been corrupted by leftist ideologues. Race, class, and gender, that great triumvirate, have replaced Plato, Chaucer, and Milton.
Or the problem is posed in terms of jobs: Young people must be realistic in this day and age, and humanities majors simply don’t earn as much as other graduates. It’s a basic pragmatic calculation. Business majors will make more money than those with English degrees. On this reading, the decline of the humanities actually makes sense, and it’s a surprise that it hasn’t happened earlier.
Sometimes the decline is put into the context of university survival: Humanities courses are costly to teach and seem expendable. Why not buy into a system of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, where students can have immediate access to all the best lecturers in the country? This would eliminate the need for extraneous, “luxury” departments, of classics and unpopular foreign languages, for example. Online courses could even be used as substitutes for large survey classes in history and political science and similar fields.