What's Happened to the Humanities?


This volume of specially commissioned original essays presents the thoughts of some of the most distinguished commentators within the American academy on the fundamental changes that have taken place in the humanities in the latter part of the twentieth century. In the transformation of American higher education from the university to the "demoversity," the humanities have become a less and less important part of education, a matter established by a statistical appendix and elaborated on in several of the essays....

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Princeton, New Jersey 1997 Hardcover First edition New in new jacket ISBN: 0691011559. [4to] 267p. ill. (b/w_tables) notes. appendecies index. New in dj protected against wear ... and tear in Brodart Archival Mylar. Read more Show Less

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This volume of specially commissioned original essays presents the thoughts of some of the most distinguished commentators within the American academy on the fundamental changes that have taken place in the humanities in the latter part of the twentieth century. In the transformation of American higher education from the university to the "demoversity," the humanities have become a less and less important part of education, a matter established by a statistical appendix and elaborated on in several of the essays. The individual essays offer close observations into how the humanities have been affected by declining academic status, by demographic shifts, by reductions in financial support, and by changing communication technology. They also explore the effect of these forces on books, libraries, and the phenomenology of reading in the age of images. When basic conditions change, theory follows, and several essays trace the appearance and effect of new relativistic epistemologies in the humanities. Social institutions change as well in such circumstances, and the volume concludes with studies of the new social arrangements that have developed in the humanities in recent years: the attack on professionalism and the effort to transform the humanities into the social conscience of academia and even of the nation as a whole.

Cause and effect? Who can say? What the essays make clear, however, is that as the humanities have become less significant in American higher education, they have also been the scene of unusually energetic pedagogical, social, and intellectual changes.

The contributors to the volume are David Bromwich, John D'Arms, Denis Donoghue, Carla Hesse, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lynn Hunt, Frank Kermode, Louis Menand, Francis Oakley, Christopher Ricks, and Margery Sabin. Included is a substantial introduction by Alvin Kernan and an appendix of tables and figures showing baccalaureate and doctoral degrees over the years in various types of schools.

Originally published in 1997.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The authors shrewdly analyze the dangers posed by new wave, post-modern scholarship. Though the reader may not agree with all their assessments, their arguments are powerfully and judiciously marshaled and laid out in succinct, lucid prose. . . . a highly eclectic volume, but a volume that should be read. . . by the reader interested in the intellectual, social and pedagogical changes sustained by the humanities in the closing years of this century."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"The forces that have buffeted the humanities are not entirely external to them, as most of the contributions acknowledge. The state of the humanities is, after all, related to the state of humanists."—James M. Morris, Wilson Quarterly

"Kernan's contributors supply useful perspectives about the recent history of U.S. universities and their potential future, of particular interest to readers fascinated by university trends and the sometimes noisy battles within academe over the institutions' objectives and the meaning and value of the humanities."Booklist

Library Journal
The current state of the humanities in American colleges and universities is the topic of this book, which contains 11 scholarly essays originally written for presentation at the National Humanities Center and at Boston University. Each contributor is a recognized humanities scholar, and, though a few of the essays are obscure, most are lucid and well documented. All 11 contributors have two premises in common: that their field of specialization occupies a less important position in academe today than it did midway through the century and that academic authority has eroded in order to give "power to the many." Kernan's clear, persuasive introduction is accompanied by tables and charts that show the declining number of humanities degrees awarded at the baccalaureate and graduate levels in the United States over the past 30 years. For academic libraries.Joyce W. Smothers, Monmouth Cty. Lib., Manalapan, N.J.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691011554
  • Publisher: Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
  • Publication date: 1/17/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 268
  • Product dimensions: 6.51 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Read an Excerpt

What's Happened to the Humanities?

By Alvin Kernan


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01155-4


Democratization and Decline?



Teaching and research in the humanities are shaped by various factors, not all of which are immediately evident either to the public or to humanities scholars themselves. This essay examines the role of some of those silently acting but nonetheless effective agents in remaking the world of higher education. The focus will be on the intersection of two major structural trends: the ever-progressing democratization of higher education and the less certain but nonetheless potentially momentous decline in the status of the humanities. How are these trends connected to each other? More generally, what are the likely consequences of demographic changes in and for the humanities sector of higher education? I do not argue that economic and demographic changes will determine all the social and intellectual outcomes, but it does seem likely that they will shape those developments in significant ways.

My basic lines of argument can be briefly summarized: (1) Scholars in the humanities must meet the demographic and cultural challenge of an ever more multiethnic and feminine student population in an era of declining resources and perhaps declining prestige, especially for their field. (2) All faculty, but perhaps especially those in the humanities, face the potentially divisive social side effects of age cohorts that have different sex and minority ratios and different professional experiences and expectations—effects that could be exacerbated by the rise of the two-earner partnership and uncertainties about the retirement of the senior faculty. (3) Intellectual trends in the humanities will inevitably be affected by declining prestige, dwindling resources, and internal social divisions. I do not mean to paint a bleak portrait of our future, for in many ways higher education has never been more successful anywhere in the world than it is now in the United States. But a reminder of an old definition of the difference between optimism and pessimism might come in handy: the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, while the pessimist fears this is true.


American higher education has been undergoing an ever-accelerating process of democratization since the 1870s. In 1870 52,000 students enrolled in American universities and colleges; twenty years later their number had more than doubled to 157,000, and by 1910 the total had reached 355,000. The number of students leapt to over 2 million after World War II and rapidly increased to 15 million by 1994. According to projections published in the September 1, 1995, almanac issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, college enrollment will remain static until 1998, when it will recommence its inexorable climb, reaching 16 million by 2005. In recent decades this growth has been due largely to an increase in the proportion of high school graduates going on to college. In 1983 32.5 percent of high school graduates went on to college; in 1992 the figure reached 41.9 percent. However, in 1993 the percentage declined slightly to 41.4 percent. If the percentage of high school graduates going on to college continues to stagnate or decline, the process of democratization might also stagnate or decline, thus reversing or at least halting a century-long development.

Democratization of higher education is probably more advanced in the United States than anywhere else in the world; in the 1980s, only Canada and Sweden even came close to sending as many young people on to higher education, and Australia, France, the USSR, and West Germany sent only about half as many of their nineteen- to twenty-four-year-olds to university (in the United Kingdon the proportion was even lower). In North America the percentage of the total population studying at the "third level" (which includes all institutions of higher education) has climbed from 4 percent in 1970 to 5.3 percent in 1991 (a 32 percent increase in just twenty years). In Europe the comparable figures are 1.4 percent in 1970 and 2.1 percent in 1991 (a 50 percent increase); in Africa, 0.1 percent in 1970 and 0.4 percent in 1991 (a 300 percent increase, albeit from a much lower level). In many other countries (indeed in most of the world, but especially in Europe), government policy has shifted in the direction of admitting more students to university-level study, which may mean that these countries will face social and intellectual tensions similar to those that Americans have confronted on campuses over the last decades.

If the worldwide trend toward expanding higher education does continue, it will generate pressures on the physical plants and faculties of universities and colleges, since the number of institutions is not increasing by much if at all, schools are expanding their plants only very slowly, and the size of faculties may not continue to expand as it has in the past. In the United States, the total number of institutions offering higher education nearly doubled between 1870 and 1920, doubled again between 1920 and 1960, increased by 57 percent between 1960 and 1980, and even increased by 12 percent between 1980 and 1990, but the rate of growth in our institutions has now tapered off to about 1 percent a year. Worldwide, the faculty/student ratio at the third level has remained virtually stagnant, declining slightly from a ratio of 13.22 students per faculty member in 1970 to 13.46 in 1980 and 13.67 in 1991.

Although higher education has become more available to almost every kind of social group in the United States, women have made the most spectacular gains. In the 1980s alone, for example, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to men increased by 7 percent while the number of those awarded to women rose 27 percent. Women now make up 55 percent of the student population, and the number of women among the faculty is increasing too, albeit at a slower pace. In 1987, 27 percent of full-time college professors were women. By 1992, this had risen to 33.5 percent. The humanities have one of the highest proportions of women faculty: 33 percent in 1987 (the most recent year for which such comparisons are available), compared to 2 percent women faculty in engineering, 17 percent women faculty in natural sciences, and 22 percent in the social sciences. Only health and home economics had a higher percentage of women faculty in 1987.

The entrance of women into the academy has been particularly apparent in the humanities at the doctoral level; the proportion of doctoral degrees conferred on women in all disciplines increased from one in ten in 1966 to over one in three by 1993, while the proportion of humanities doctorates conferred on women grew from about one in five to virtually one in two in the same time period (Figure 12, appendix). Women have long taken B.A. degrees in the humanities, and at this level there has been less change. While overall the proportion of B.A. degrees conferred on women rose from about one-third in 1966 to nearly one-half in 1993, the proportion of women gaining B.A.s in the humanities remained remarkably steady, ranging between 50 and 60 percent in the research universities and 55 and 65 percent in the liberal arts colleges (see Figures 13 and 14, appendix). At the B.A. level, then, women have maintained their traditional interest in the humanities, but the real increase has come in nonhumanities fields.

Accompanying (but not exactly paralleling) the increase in women students has been the less dramatic but still significant increase in the numbers and percentages of minority students. In 1993 minority students made up 22.6 percent of college and university students; in 1992 13.2 percent of the faculty were minorities. (In the humanities 11 percent of the faculty were minorities in 1987. This figure put them in the middle of all fields, which ranged from 13 percent minorities in engineering [almost entirely Asians] to 6 percent in agriculture and home economics.) Changes in immigration patterns may well raise the number of minority students coming to colleges and universities. Between 1931 and 1960, Europeans made up 58 percent of immigrants to the United States, Canadians 21 percent, Latin Americans 15 percent, and Asians only 5 percent. Between 1980 and 1984, in contrast, Europeans made up only 12 percent of the immigrants and Canadians just 2 percent, while Latin Americans comprised 35 percent and Asians 48 percent. But the consequences of this change for the humanities are not yet clear, for unlike white women, minority students do not gravitate toward the humanities for their majors or doctorates.

Minority students take fewer B.A.s and fewer doctorates in the humanities than whites (see Figures 15 and 16, appendix). It is worth noting that only education and the social sciences produced proportionately more women Ph.D.s than the humanities in 1993, whereas all other fields—including the natural sciences—produced more minority Ph.D.s in 1993 than the humanities. Thus, though demographic changes might put feminism and multiculturalism inevitably on the intellectual agenda, their impact on the humanities should be viewed as less than self-evident. Perhaps a paradox is at work here: the humanities have responded most vehemently in intellectual terms to the changes within the student body, but they have not shared equally in all those changes; humanities faculty teach their subjects somewhat differently because of changes in the student body, but they have not actually attracted those different students to serious study of the humanities. It is possible that minority students have been especially alert to the potential decline in status of the humanities or that they have felt that the humanities are inherently more elitist and white in subject matter because the humanities are more closely tied to Western culture than the social or natural sciences.

A Decline in Status?

The increasing "feminization" of the humanities (and to some extent of higher education more generally) raises serious questions about long-term consequences, for the feminization of work almost always has led to a decline in skill status in other occupations in the past. One measure of the relative status of the humanities can be found in comparative pay scales. In a national faculty salary survey of 1993–1994, researchers found that the average salary (all ranks included) for foreign languages and literature was $41,038, for English $41,346, for philosophy and religion $43,489, and for history $45,337. During the period 1966–1993, history and philosophy and religion had much lower proportions of women receiving doctorates than foreign languages or English (Figure 12, appendix). Similarly, nonhumanities fields were generally characterized by higher average salaries than the humanities: biology $44,390, mathematics $45,000, physics $52,660, economics $52,755, and engineering $62,280. There is a correlation between relative pay and the proportion of women in a field; faculty in those academic fields that have attracted a relatively high proportion of women are paid less on average than those in fields that have not attracted women in the same numbers.

The potential for a decline in status has become more likely with the increased use of part-time positions for teaching. Already in 1989, before the effects of economic recession and stagnation became apparent, one quarter of four-year-college faculties were part-time and fully one-half of those teaching at two-year colleges were part-time. Women comprise 42 percent of the part-time faculty, and 43.2 percent of women faculty members work on a part-time basis as compared to 30 percent of the male faculty. As more and more positions go part-time or temporary and more and more teaching is done by lecturers and adjuncts, the social structure of the university faculty is likely to become proletarianized at the bottom. There are intellectual consequences as well. A recent study of full-time but non-tenure-track faculty has shown that compared to untenured faculty on a tenure track they had less interest and engagement in research, less of a sense that they could influence matters in their department, and more of a sense that they had made the wrong career choice and might soon leave academia.

The size of the faculty has been increasing, by 30 percent between 1976 and 1989, when the number of students increased 25 percent, but the teaching environment has been subtly transformed even for full-time, tenure-track faculty. The number of teaching and research assistants has increased hardly at all, by only 2 percent between 1976 and 1989. The number of administrators and nonteaching professionals employed by the university has increased most of all, by 43 percent for administrators and by 123 percent for "nonfaculty professionals" (many of whom we would probably consider administrators). The university staff as a whole is getting bigger, but the relative presence of faculty, secretaries, and janitors is actually declining. By 1991, the percentage of faculty within the total staff of institutions of higher education had declined from 34 percent in 1976 to 32.5 percent, the percentage of nonprofessional (janitorial, secretarial) staff had declined from 42.4 percent to 37.3 percent, and the percentage of instruction and research assistants had declined from 8.6 percent to 7.8 percent, while the presence of nonfaculty professional staff had increased from 9.6 percent to 16.8 percent. As the university becomes increasingly bureaucratized to meet financial pressures, the humanities—preeminently a teaching sector—are unlikely to prosper.

If the humanities are perceived as especially "soft" because they have become "feminized" (admitting more women to their ranks as students, B.A.s, doctoral candidates, and faculty), and especially contentious because they "man" the forward trenches of the "culture wars," they may suffer disproportionately from decreases in funding, declines in faculty size, or increases in adjunct and part-time teaching. Such a trend would exaggerate a decline in status. This decline may already have been registered in comparative numbers of doctoral degrees, which in the humanities have declined from a high of 14.8 percent of all doctoral degrees in 1973 to a low of 8.4 percent in 1988–1989 (rising marginally to 9.2 percent in 1992), compared to a more steady state in the social sciences (rising from a low of 14.6 percent in 1966 to a high of 18.8 percent in 1977). The natural sciences had long dominated (32.3 percent of doctorates in 1966), but they have also declined somewhat (to 23.7 percent in 1993; see Table 2, appendix), though no doubt for different reasons (many of the students in the natural sciences, especially at the doctoral level, are now foreign-born, reflecting declining interest in the natural sciences among native-born students). At the B.A. level, both the humanities and the natural sciences seem to be suffering from a long-term malaise; as the number of B.A. degrees overall has more than doubled (from 1966 to 1993), the proportion in the humanities has steadily dropped from just over 20 percent in the late 1960s to a low of about 10 percent in the mid-1980s, increasing only to 12 percent in the early 1990s. Similarly, the proportion in natural sciences has dropped steadily from 11 percent in the late 1960s to under 7 percent in the early 1990s. At the B.A. level, as at the doctoral level, the social sciences have achieved more of a steady state, claiming 15 to 17 percent of the B.A.s in the late 1960s, then rising slightly, then declining slightly, only to end again at 15 percent in the early 1990s (Table 1, appendix).


Excerpted from What's Happened to the Humanities? by Alvin Kernan. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Change in the Humanities and Higher Education 3
1 Democratization and Decline? The Consequences of Demographic Change in the Humanities 17
2 Funding Trends in the Academic Humanities, 1970-1995: Reflections on the Stability of the System 32
3 Ignorant Armies and Nighttime Clashes: Changes in the Humanities Classroom, 1970-1995 63
4 Evolution and Revolution: Change in the Literary Humanities, 1968-1995 84
5 Humanities and the Library in the Digital Age 107
6 The Practice of Reading 122
7 "Beyond Method" 143
8 Changing Epochs 162
9 The Pursuit of Metaphor 179
10 The Demise of Disciplinary Authority 201
11 Scholarship as Social Action 220
Appendix Tables and Figures on B.A.s and Ph.D.s in the Humanities, 1966-1993 245
About the Contributors 259
Index 261
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