What “Crisis”? The Humanities are Booming

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

Friends of UMIH will be keenly aware of the “iron law” of journalism that demands all mention of the “humanities” be made only in relation to their “crisis” and “decline”.[1] They will also undoubtedly be aware of the growing and impressive body of literature outlining the value of the humanities, as well as why the above view is so deeply flawed and problematic, be it socially, culturally, politically, or even economically.[2] So, one might turn to address any number of important issues as regards public discussions of the crisis surrounding the humanities, but I would like to touch on the most basic — namely, what crisis?

Drawing on figures of undergraduate recruitment in the UK, the US, and Australia, the professor of modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, Peter Mandler, has demonstrated that far from declining the humanities are actually “booming”. [3] His research shows that in the English-speaking world, over the last half-century, the proportion of students studying the humanities in university has hardly changed, making it one of the most stable, as well as versatile, degree options. As ever, aggregate data for Canadian universities is pathetically thin. However, a provisional survey of the available data for UMIH’s home institution, spanning back to the 1999-2000 academic year, suggests that this pattern might generally replicate itself in Canada too. This, admittedly, is a rather bold conclusion to draw based on such limited data. But however that might be, we certainly have little reason to think that Canada is out of step with a broader global trend, for in absolute numbers—and throughout the entire world—more people are studying the humanities than ever before.[4]

It is really not hard to understand why. Humanities or Arts graduates possess a versatility that enables them to pursue many different career paths and successfully navigate the rapidly changing labour market of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. For example, close to 40,000 employed Canadians possess an undergraduate degree in history. 18% of that group work in management occupations, another 23% work in business, finance, and administrative positions, while many of the remaining 59% work in the civil service, or as consultants and successful entrepreneurs.[5]

The value of humanities graduates’ skillset is further reflected in a number of telling statistics. In Canada, social science and humanities graduates share in the income premium for university graduates. For example, full-time workers with degrees in history earn, on average, above $65,000 annually.[6] To take a more comparative, global perspective, according to a study by the British Council carried out across 30 countries and in all sectors, more than half, 55%, of all professional leaders with higher education qualifications possessed a social sciences or humanities undergraduate degree.[7]

But one need not resort only to this sort of economic argument for the value and importance of the humanities, which is good because, to my mind at least, the underlying premise of such an argument concedes too much ground in advance, anyway. Higher education is about much more than training for employment. As the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois famously put it: “The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life”.

We are constantly told that we live in a “knowledge economy,” and it is true that those with humanities degrees contribute productively to it. But we also live in a “knowledge culture” and much of the value derived from a humanities education stems from the sense of satisfaction it can provide, the way it stimulates, fulfils, and promotes an engagement with the world that is as intrepid as it is open-minded. It fosters an appreciation of nuance, the importance of context, and the need for not only tough mindedness, but also balance and moderation. For these sorts of reasons, and many others besides, study of the humanities contributes to both individual and collective happiness and well-being.[8]

At root, the assorted disciplines that comprise the humanities are devoted to deepening our understanding of human activity in all its richness and diversity across times and cultures. So, of course the humanities are valuable and useful. The problem does not lie with those who proclaim this simple truth; rather it rests with those who somehow deny it. Surely it is time to get off the back foot. There is no crisis in the humanities.


[1] Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, The Humanities, Higher Education, & Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 1.

[2] In addition to the above, other notable works include, Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford University Press, 2013), Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (Penguin Books, 2012), Jonathan Bate, ed., The Public Value of the Humanities (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Humanities and the Dream of America (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2010).

[3] Peter Mandler, “The Humanities in British Universities since 1945,” American Historical Review, 120 (2015), 1299-1310; idem, “The Two Cultures Revisited: The Humanities in British Universities Since 1945,” Twentieth Century British History, 26 (2015), 400-23; idem, Rise of the Humanities.

[4] Mandler, Rise of the Humanities.

[5] Universities Canada/Universités Canada, “Quick Facts on the Value of the Liberal Arts,” March 2016.

[6] Statistics Canada, National Household Survey, 2011.

[7] British Council, Educational Pathways of Leaders: an International comparison, 2015.

[8] https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/humanities-contribution-happiness

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