The humanities are in crisis. It’s become orthodoxy. In fact, so much attention has been paid to the ‘crisis of the humanities’ that few have stopped to ask if there actually is such a crisis. Over just the past few generations, enormous changes have transformed higher education. These changes have brought a greater proportion of 18-year-olds to university. In the case of most countries apart from the United States, this brings a huge increase, from a low base – and thus tremendous changes in the composition of that student body in terms of class, gender, ethnicity and other key markers. In each generation, commentators have predicted (and policymakers have demanded) that the humanities would suffer from a more utilitarian, career-oriented, tech-savvy influx. But it hasn’t happened.
In the English-speaking world, over the past half-century, the proportion of students studying humanities at university has hardly changed. True, as one might expect, in the US, the United Kingdom and Australia, there have been fluctuations and important changes in educational demographics, most importantly more women going to college. The crude picture is this: in 1971, humanities students outnumbered business students; now it’s the other way around. But in 1971 there were also about 50 per cent more business majors than science majors; now there are about 250 per cent more.