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Humanities not booming in Canada, and that's okay!

21 Dec 2015

Peter Mandler, professor of British cultural history at the University of Cambridge, recently published an essay in Aeon (at the risk of sounding like an insufferable dolt, I was reading Aeon before it was cool). In what is a well written piece, Mandler establishes something that we already knew very well but needed reminding: humanities enrolment has been more or less static since the 1960s. Moreover, relying on some pretty convincing statistics, Mandler argues that while relative numbers in the humanities have declined, absolute numbers in England, Australia, and the United States have actually increased (mainly due to the increased number of women studying the humanities). He also establishes historical precedent for the current utilitarian push away from the humanities, as he contends that “The swing away from the humanities and the sciences [in the 1970s] demonstrated some old lessons. Policymakers had had a very simpleminded understanding of the relationship between education, human capital and economic growth. Their efforts to steer students into the sciences were really a return to earlier, socialist ‘manpower planning’ in favour of certain industrial sectors. In both cases, students had their own ideas of what to study. In both cases, they didn’t respond to government incentives. They were following different signals.” This sounds very familiar.

Indeed, but what of these signals? What of the cultural forces at play that convince young students to spend their years studying Plato, or reading Chaucer? Mandler returns to these enigmatic forces towards the end of his piece. Here I would have liked to see Mandler apply his skills as a cultural historian; instead, he relies on the work of economist Ross Finnie. Mandler writes: “As the Canadian economist Ross Finnie has suggested, subject choice derives from ‘a complex set of influences, experiences, relationships and developments that are rooted in the family and probably start quite early in an individual’s life – rather than related to a simple well-informed calculation of the future (monetary) costs and benefits made near or at the end of high school’.” Having read the article, Finnie was actually referring to “decisions regarding access to post-secondary education,” and not “subject choice,” but we’ll let Mandler’s misquote slide because Finnie’s comment is totally vague and can still apply. I found it curious that a cultural historian would rely so heavily on statistics and ignore an opportunity to do history. At the same time, I shouldn’t be surprised: quantitative evidence has always carried more weight. Nevertheless, his essay seems to have been well received by professional historians and graduate students, while general audiences keep on in ignorance.

Mandler’s positive take on the current landscape of the humanities is a welcomed breath of fresh air. It certainly challenges the “crisis” narrative, and for those initiated enough to care, it should provide for brief moment of respite. With all that being said, I found it interesting that Mandler ignored (side-stepped?) Canadian statistics in his work. Here are my conclusions on recent enrolment statistics.

This is not the first time that the skies have seemed so dark. According to StatsCan post-secondary 1st cycle students data, enrolment in the humanities dropped by 18.8% from 1992-93 (125,319) to 1999-2000 (101,736), only to rebound dramatically within the decade with humanities enrolment (from History and English Literature, to Maritime Studies and French Language and Literature) across the country increasing by 16.8% from 2004-05 (122,712) to 2009-10 (143,331). These favourable increases were prompted by increased enrolment in Manitoba, British Columbia, and Ontario. However, since 2009-10, humanities enrolment has seen a dramatic decrease to the tune of 12% (now hovering around 126,000 students). And what of humanities enrolment relative to all 1st Cycle enrolment? Whereas in 1992-93 humanities enrolment constituted 22.5% of all post-secondary 1st Cycle students (601,764 total students), that proportion is closer to 13.7% today (921,600 total students).

So what does this all mean? Yes, the number of students studying the humanities has not changed very much over the last 20+ years in Canada. But according to StatsCan 1st Cycle enrollment data, the number of students enrolling in humanities programs relative to the number of students enrolling in all other post-secondary programs has gone down by ~10%, and I’m doubtful that the trend will discontinue. While it is true that the number of students studying the humanities has remained steady, that won’t be of much consolation to program heads and deans. A recent Quarterly Update from the President of my institution (a small to medium sized comprehensive research university) placed this into perspective. According to Alan Wildeman, “Most noticeably, enrolment in FAHSS has dropped from 44% to 34% of total student enrolments, while Engineering has risen from 9% to 15%.” These numbers have far reaching consequences on program funding, faculty appointments, and capital expenditure priorities; perhaps it’s not enough to look at absolute numbers.

This all suggests to me that policymakers and university administrators have been quite successful in presenting certain “signals,” effectively selling students (literally, with beautiful physical space, or theoretically, with promises of increased return on investment) the idea of post-secondary education in non-humanities programs. And yes, I think humanities departments at Canadian universities need to rethink the way they brand themselves to prospective students. But I also think that the virtues of an education in the humanities are largely engendered by its scale; it’s not commercial or towering, but substantial, intimate, and effective.