Students of English and history are going the way of the dodo bird.
During just the last decade, their numbers at colleges and universities have dropped by a third – and humanities enrollment is down by 17%, Nathan Heller reports in his recent New Yorker article, “The End of the English Major.”
Data collected by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project show that “from 2012 to 2020 the number of graduated humanities majors at Ohio State’s main campus fell by forty-six per cent. Tufts lost nearly fifty per cent of its humanities majors, and Boston University lost forty-two. Notre Dame ended up with half as many as it started with, while SUNY-Albany lost almost three-quarters. Vassar and Bates Ã¢?? standard-bearing liberal-arts colleges Ã¢?? saw their numbers of humanities majors fall by nearly half.”
Conservatives who have long lamented the politicization of the humanities, highlighted by the rise of women’s studies, queer studies, ethnic studies as well as the transformation of English and history into tools for the left’s vision of social justice, might be tempted to cheer this development. They might also applaud a main driver Heller and others cite for this trend: the determination of students spooked by the 2008 economic meltdown to choose majors that can help them land decent paying jobs. Reading “Middlemarch” may be uplifting but a marketing degree pays dividends.
Unfortunately, something nefarious may be going on. It’s hard to believe that schools run by leftwing professors and administrators aggressively intent on telling students what they should think are passively responding to market forces. It is also not farfetched to suspect that they might be allowing the humanities to wither because it is a roadblock to the woke revolution they are advancing.
English and history have always had an inherent conservative streak: They are, almost by definition, backward-looking disciplines. They have sought to conserve and thereby connect students with what the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and known.” Studying the history of ancient Greece and Rome and the art of the Renaissance, reading Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Ellison, and, of course, the Bible, show us how our ancestors’ decisions shaped our world while providing wisdom as we confront the great question: How can I lead a good life?
At bottom, it is a recognition that history is ever the story, as Faulkner put it, “of the human heart in conflict with itself,” and that as we search for answers to eternal questions we can find solace by turning to the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.
This mindset is problematic for the woke revolution. It holds that there is no abiding human nature or human condition; people are blank slates upon which society stamps ideas, like pieces of factory tin. It does not see us as biological creatures with innate instincts and concerns but a collection of social constructs that can be changed like hats. Utopia is possible if everyone can be made to wear the correct ideas. This forward-looking ideology has little use for the past; it was no accident that a seminal model for our woke movement, the French Revolution, abolished our Gregorian calendar and imposed its own, declaring September 1792 to be the start of Year One.
Amnesia is the crucial psychological state for the woke revolution. In order to control thought, language, and reality itself, the left must strip people of the ability to evaluate the future plans it is peddling through reference to past experience. Those who do not remember what happened last week, last year, or a century ago are much easier to manipulate.
Hence the longstanding effort to delegitimize the past by portraying it as a parade of horribles: History is the story of shocking cruelty; classic books are instruments to oppress marginalized groups.
If you have never even been exposed to the idea that capitalism is the most liberating force in human history, the prime vehicle through which common people were able to gain wealth and power and replace authoritarian aristocracies with democratic forms of governance, then it is easy to be convinced it is simply a “tool of oppression.”
If you do not know that the American revolution was fought for human freedom, then you might accept the risible claim of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, that its goal was the preservation of slavery.
If literature and history are just cautionary tales of humanity’s wretchedness, if they are not sources of truth and beauty, but expressions of power and will, then why bother studying them?
Let’s not forget that the economic meltdown was not the only thing that happened in 2008, when students started fleeing the humanities. That was also when the woke revolution began emerging as a transformational force through the election of Barack Obama. It was around then that support for humanities from nonprofits and the government started drying up.
Circling the date 2007 on a piece of paper, James Shapiro, the renowned Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University, told the New Yorker’s Heller it was then that “funding goes down. The financial support for the humanities is gone on a national level, on a state level, at the university level.” A 2022 survey, for example, found that only 7% of Harvard freshmen planned to major in the humanities, down from 20% a decade earlier.
History does not provide many bright lines. It is far easier to identify correlation than causation in its movements. But as we consider the plummeting interest in the study of English and history, we should note how helpful this is to the forces of the left, who control our college and universities. The less we know about the past, the more they can shape the future.
J. Peder Zane is a RealClearInvestigations editor and columnist. He previously worked as a book review editor and book columnist for the News & Observer (Raleigh), where his writing won several national honors. Zane has also worked at the New York Times and taught writing at Duke University and Saint Augustine’s University.
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