Friday, November 15, 2013

The Crisis Crisis

The humanities are in crisis. (From the New York Times.)

No, they aren't. (From the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Ben Schmidt. His original blog post is here.)

The US has a critical shortage of STEM workers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). (From the National Science and Math Initiative.)

No it doesn't. (From the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Michael Anft.)

In the twitterverse, the world of simple punch lines and thumbs-up-thumbs-down binary choices, you can no longer have a problem that isn't a crisis. We have a crisis of nuance in our rhetoric about our problems. A meta-crisis. A crisis crisis.

But when everything is a crisis, we don't recognize a real crisis when we see one.

Describing something as a crisis serves a purpose in academia. If you are an academic and tell your dean or president you have a problem, the response is likely to be, "Yeah, well I have lots of problems to solve. I'll put yours on my list." Same with Congress. But if you can draw a graph showing you have a crisis, you stand a better chance of catching the eye of the media and getting some leverage.

Except that if your graph turns out to be a distortion or a manipulation, your crisis is deflated. You are discredited. You no longer have even a problem, much less a crisis.

So it was when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released this image of the "Decline and fall" of interest in the humanities.


Off a cliff! Looks like my class of 1968 was the end of the golden era.

Not exactly. Put the zero point of the x-axis back a few years and the graph looks very different:

That is numbers of humanities degrees as a percentage of total degrees. But some of those non-humanities degrees in recent years might be going to people who wouldn't even have gone to college fifty or sixty years ago. If you plot the humanities degrees as a percentage of the college age population, you find that the density of humanities degree holders is actually higher now than it was in the 1950s. It was the 1970s that were anomalous, not the past couple of decades. (All graphs from the second source linked to above, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but you can read pretty much the same argument on Schmidt's blog, also linked above.)

Now it's an interesting argument which is the right basis for comparison. Should the number of humanists represent a fixed proportion of the population or of college students? Either way, the data make the humanities crisis look a lot more like an identity crisis of my fellow students of the late '60s and early '70s than a crisis of student careerism in the early 21st century.

In Excellence Without a Soul, I offered a couple of comments on the humanities. In the preface, commenting on the then-nascent new General Education curriculum, I wrote:
From the beginning, science and globalization drove the review. These would be the engines of human progress in the coming decades, and Harvard College needed to make these themes central to undergraduate education. The new curriculum would marginalize the humanities. At the same time, the academic disciplines themselves provided the raw materials from which an undergraduate curriculum should be composed, as though students going to college en route to careers in business, law, or medicine were doing something slightly out of place at Harvard. This superimposition of economic motivations on ivory-tower themes has exposed a university without a larger sense of educational purpose or a connection to its principal constituents. We have forgotten that we teach the humanities to help students understand what it means to be human. We have forgotten that students from families with little money may not share the assumptions that well-to-do families have about the purpose of education. And we have forgotten that universities could not teach students about our interconnectedness in a global society were it not for the freedoms that American society provides to citizens. 
And in the chapter on grading, I thought about why grades tend to be higher in the humanities.
The humanities are, I think, in a bit of a mess. What is considered legitimate academic work has expanded greatly over the past thirty years, and judgments of the quality of scholarly articles have not reached a stable consensus. It should come as no surprise that consistent judgments of students’ work are also hard to come by, especially when those judgments are made by graduate students who are learning the subjective academic standards of their disciplines. 
That lack of a stable consensus continues. I was in a meeting recently with some humanities faculty and came out of it thinking about what I used to say about the difference between computer scientists and mathematicians: When the mathematicians circle the wagons, they point the guns outwards. The computer scientists have learned to be less self-destructive while defining and defending their discipline. The humanists have not. At Harvard the humanists can't even define their Gen Ed areas in less than thirteen syllables ("Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding"), the sort of pretentious diction that is a dead giveaway for muddy thinking. History got tacked onto the curriculum as an afterthought, in a requirement invisibly laced across all the other requirements. There may not be a crisis but there are definitely problems of identity and outreach.

One anecdote, a sad one. I had dinner recently with a bright student who expected to study literature at Harvard. She was rethinking it because the pitch she heard as a freshman for studying humanities here emphasized media, and she was more interested in books. Good grief.

Is there a national STEM crisis? I tend to think so, but it's awfully hard to tell from where I sit. Even the contrarian article cited above, which is behind a paywall in the Carbuncle of Higher Education (as a friend calls it), acknowledges the shortfall in computer and information science. I just signed at least 110 forms for sophomores to be Computer Science concentrators, and I am talking to seniors who are getting fabulous job offers. And some of the seniors getting those fabulous job offers do not have fabulous academic records. But Harvard students always do well in the job market. I am convinced that some employers just use the Harvard College admissions office as a filter and don't care that much about what we teach and what students learn. They just want 21 year old versions of the people Harvard thought had the most promise at 17, because hiring those people has paid off in the past. So it's always risky to judge what the world needs on the basis of what is happening to Harvard students!

On a national level, is there really a critical undersupply of STEM professionals or just a problem of retraining one kind of engineer to work in another area? I tend to think there really is an undersupply and the mythologizing rhetoric about the shortfall may be being fed by anti-immigration money. But I can't claim to be sure, and the crisis rhetoric makes me less sure, not more.


  1. There may be a shortage in some STEM disciplines (CS, engineering), but STEM is not a monolithic entity. I can tell you 100%, there is absolutely no shortage of biologists. Postdocs have stretched to 7+ years, and the requirements for getting a TT are quite a bit stricter than they were a generation ago.

  2. Or perhaps "the mythologizing rhetoric about the shortfall may be being fed by" PRO-IMMIGRATION money?

    1. I've heard that idea of course -- that the tech companies are just trying to drive prices down for tech workers, and have formed some kind of unholy alliance with the families of farm workers and so on. It doesn't make much sense to me. Some of the American tech workers who are being hired really are not highly skilled, so it looks like the tech firms are reaching low into the pool, not trying to dilute a good supply. I've educated too many immigrants who have more than returned to American society the investment it made in them to think they are the problem. And the lobbyists for unskilled immigrant labor are not natural allies of the tech firms.

      Instead what is happening is that we are just exporting jobs--sending software bugs to India where they get fixed overnight.

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    has more on the fallacy of extrapoloation