Pay attention to the serious talk around universities, read op-eds and publications and you might think the humanities were in greater risk than the earth’s environment. In fact, despite the overheated stated claims, the humanities are not at death’s door. Modern demands will more likely force them into a new shape, and eventually a healthier one. That claim might seem unusual. The percentage of scholars specializing in the humanities has sunk to an all-time low. Learners have turned their backs on art history and literary works in support of studies like bookkeeping and medical, that leads straight to jobs. Governors like Florida’s Rick Scott have proved helpful to undercut areas of study not tuned carefully to employment. President Obama wants education to stress technology, science, engineering and arithmetic. Resources for disciplines in professions like history and linguistics are drying up. The legislature has already reduced the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities and now Rep. Paul Ryan wants to destroy it.
Analysts of higher education paint a more uncertain image. How many years ago you start counting either degrees or research dollars, determines how depressing the humanities figures look. And with more and more people in America going to college only to qualify themselves for work, most time-honored areas of study have taken a hit, not just the humanities. But even at a conventional, top level organization like Stanford, degrees in humanities professions have dropped so low as to alert teachers into unmatched missionary initiatives.
Whatever precise form changes takes, teachers and their learners are likely to find that the humanities amount to more than a set of separated professions, each stuck on its own island. Ordinary readers might find learned research in art, history and literary works regularly published in language available to them, even released in general-interest publications, as it usually was before 1850. Even political figures may look for the value of erudition efforts. Today’s many humanities jointly form the newest edition of a millennia-long European custom of query into language and its products: inquiry, that is, into worlds that humans have created for themselves and expressed in words. That endeavor will not vanish, even when the present humanities disciplines do.