Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6


Five Theses on the Humanities Crisis

Harvard in Numbers

By Aden Barton, Crimson Opinion Writer
Aden Barton ’24, an Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.

I came into Harvard thinking I’d concentrate in English. I’m now getting a degree in Economics and working at a hedge fund next summer. My trajectory seems to be somewhat common at Harvard, so I wanted to look at why the humanities have declined here and beyond.

There are a million articles on the death of the humanities with a million different opinions as to why the decline is occurring, leaving the scholarship surrounding the issue fairly disjointed and multi-layered. So, I decided to write five theses instead of one overarching argument, Martin Luther style.

1. The first crisis of the humanities happened in the 1970s.

Between 1966 and 2010, there was a 50 percent decline of humanities degrees, but the bulk of that decline occurred between 1970 and the mid-1980s.

The decline of the humanities at Harvard over that same time period was, thankfully, less pronounced. A 2013 Harvard Report note showed that humanities concentrations declined from 1970 to 1990, although at a much slower rate.

Notably, the percentage of humanities degrees at Harvard actually grew slightly between 1970 and 1990 if you classify History as a social science. In that case, the humanities peaked at around 30 percent in 1960, declining to a little less than 20 percent today, meaning that, at Harvard, History – as compared to the humanities overall – has faced an especially large enrollment drop over the last 40 years.

2. The second crisis of the humanities is happening now

The humanities were surprisingly stable between the mid-1980s and the Great Recession. As a result, many commentators asserted around 2010 that the crisis of the humanities was overhyped.

Those takes turned out to be premature since the humanities continued to decline in the weak economic environment of the 2010s, which is why analysts are now declaring a second crisis of the humanities.

Again, at Harvard, this decline is much less pronounced but still present.

In fact, over the past decade, social science concentrations have faced a more pronounced decline than the humanities at Harvard. This may be because the History concentration, which faced a nearly 50 percent drop from 2011 to 2020, is included in the social science category in the graph above. Conversely, Applied Math, Statistics, and Computer Science have seen the biggest growth over the last ten years, perhaps reflecting the shift of would-be Economics concentrators to more quantitative degrees.

3. It’s not all bad news

The decline of the humanities is worrisome, but there are two big silver linings.

First, if people are choosing humanities out of a fear of not getting a good job, that’s not great. But, the vast majority of the pre-2010 decline in humanities enrollment was due to women moving out of the humanities, which may reflect more accepting workplace cultures, especially among STEM occupations.

And, although humanities majors are declining as a share of overall degrees, the absolute number of humanities degree in the country is up since the 1970s because more Americans are attending college:

Another way of thinking about this is that humanities majors as a share of the overall population is relatively stable.

4. A lot of this is economics

Former Harvard President Drew G. Faust said in 2014, “[The decline in humanities] reflects, I believe, fundamentally the pressure that students are feeling and being subject to about finding jobs and making sure their financial investment in education is going to pay off.”

The research to date seems to agree with Faust. Expected salaries are an important determinant of major choice, and business and social science majors do, on average, earn more than their humanities counterparts. This is probably why there was such a sharp decline in humanities majors after the 2008 recession.

There’s not great data on why Harvard students choose some concentrations over others, but Harvard students who do concentrate in the humanities are less likely than other students to cite ‘usefulness for a career’ or ‘parental pressure’ as a factor in their concentration choice.

There’s one caveat, though. Students are often misinformed about how much each major makes (so you may want to check the numbers on yours).

5. But it’s not all economics

Sometimes people overstate how much salary considerations determine major choice.

There are a ton of things that researchers have found play an important part in students’ major choice besides expected earnings: course enjoyment, parents’ approval, and especially marriage prospects.

A study of Northwestern sophomores, for example, found that course enjoyment and parental approval were more important than salary outcomes in students’ major choice.

Given that Harvard English graduates report making a median of $100,000 ten years after graduation, I’d expect that these non-wage factors are especially important at elite universities like Northwestern and Harvard. This high salary may also be one reason why the decline of the humanities is much less pronounced at our school.

6. What you should take away from all this

There is no singular crisis in the humanities. There are multiple: One in the 1970s and one now; one at elite schools and a more severe decline nationally. There are many overlapping reasons for this decline, reflecting both economic conditions and changing preferences of undergraduates.

It is only by holding all of these perspectives at once that we can understand why the humanities are declining and ever hope to reverse this trend.

Aden Barton ’24, an Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.