As I watched, he labelled the start of the graph “1958”—the year after the Soviets launched Sputnik, when the National Defense Education Act appropriated more than a billion dollars for education.

“We’re not talking about élite universities—we’re talking about money flowing into fifty states, all the way down. That was the beginning of the glory days of the humanities,” he continued. Near the plummeting end of the parabola, he scribbled “2007,” the beginning of the economic crisis. “That funding goes down,” he explained. “The financial support for the humanities is gone on a national level, on a state level, at the university level.”

Shapiro smoothed out his graph, regarded it for a moment, and ran the tip of his pencil back and forth across the curve.

“This is also the decline-of-democracy chart,” he said. He looked up and met my gaze. “You can overlay it on the money chart like a kind of palimpsest—it’s the same.”

At the high point of autumn—midterm season—I travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to spend time among the golden kids of Harvard. Last year, the college reportedly had a 3.19-per-cent admission rate. Those who make it through the needle’s eye are able to evade a lot of the forces thought to drag humanities enrollments down. Harvard’s financial-aid packages are ostensibly doled out to the full extent needed, and built without loans, giving students who receive aid the chance to graduate debt-free. Basic employability is assured by the diploma: even a Harvard graduate who majors in somersaults will be able to find some kind of job to pay the bills. In theory, this should be a school where the range of possibilities for college remains intact.

In 2022, though, a survey found that only seven per cent of Harvard freshmen planned to major in the humanities, down from twenty per cent in 2012, and nearly thirty per cent during the nineteen-seventies. From fifteen years ago to the start of the pandemic, the number of Harvard English majors reportedly declined by about three-quarters—in 2020, there were fewer than sixty at a college of more than seven thousand—and philosophy and foreign literatures also sustained losses. (For bureaucratic reasons, Harvard doesn’t count history as a humanity, but the trend holds.) “We feel we’re on the Titanic,” a senior professor in the English department told me.

Students lacked a strong sense of the department’s vaunted standing. “I would never say this to any of my English- or my film-major friends, but I kind of thought that those majors were a joke,” Isabel Mehta, a junior, told me. “I thought, I’m a writer, but I’ll never be an English major.” Instead, she’d pursued social studies—a philosophy, politics, and economics track whose popularity has exploded in recent years. (Policy, students explained, was thought to effect urgent change.) But the conversations bored her (students said “the same three things,” she reported, “and I didn’t want to be around all these classmates railing on capitalism all day”), so she landed uneasily in English after all. “I have a warped sense of identity, where I’m studying something really far removed from what a lot of people here view as central, but I’m not removed from these cultural forces,” she told me.

English professors find the turn particularly baffling now: a moment when, by most appearances, the appetite for public contemplation of language, identity, historiography, and other longtime concerns of the seminar table is at a peak.

“Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

Tara K. Menon, a junior professor who joined the English faculty in 2021, linked the shift to students arriving at college with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach. At Harvard, as elsewhere, courses that can be seen to approach an idea of canon, such as Humanities 10, an intensive, application-only survey, have been the focus of student concerns about too few Black artists in syllabi, or Eurocentric biases.

“There’s a real misunderstanding that you can come in and say, ‘I want to read post-colonial texts—that’s the thing I want to study—and I have no interest in studying the work of dead white men,’ ” Menon said. “My answer, in the big first lecture that I give, is, If you want to understand Arundhati Roy, or Salman Rushdie, or Zadie Smith, you have to read Dickens. Because one of the tragedies of the British Empire”—she smiled—“is that all those writers read all those books.”

For families recently arrived in the U.S., however, literary study is not always the most urgent priority. One evening, I met a student who graduated from Harvard in 2021 with a degree in molecular and cellular biology and a minor in linguistics. Like Justin Kovach, she described herself as an avid student of literature who never considered studying it in depth.

“My parents, who were low-income and immigrants, instilled in me the very great importance of finding a concentration that would get me a job—‘You don’t go to Harvard for basket weaving’ was one of the things they would say,” she told me. She was a member of the first generation in her family to attend college—the sort of student that élite schools are at pains to enroll. “So, when I came, I took a course that was, like, the hardest course you could take your freshman year. It integrated computer science, physics, math, chemistry, and biology. That course fulfilled a lot of the requirements to be able to do molecular and cellular biology, so I finished that, for my parents. I can get a job. I’m educated.”

She paused, then added, “I took courses in Chinese film and literature. I took classes in the science of cooking. My issue as a first-gen student is I always view humanities as a passion project. You have to be affluent in order to be able to take that on and state, ‘Oh, I can pursue this, because I have the money to do whatever I want.’ ” Nice work if you can get it. “I view the humanities as very hobby-based,” she said.

One misty afternoon, a Harvard junior named Henry Haimo took me for a walk down Dunster Street, and on past Harvard’s red-brick upperclass dorms. Haimo had assumed the style of an ageless Ivy Leaguer: glasses, a button-down, and an annihilated pair of chinos. He decided to major in history after flirting with philosophy. “There’s an incredible emphasis on ‘ethics’ in every field of study now,” he explained: A.I. plus ethics, biology plus ethics. “And effective altruism”—a practice that calls for acquiring wealth and disseminating it according to principles of optimization and efficiency—“is a huge trend on campus, seeping into everything. It has probably contributed to a good number of concentrators and secondaries in the philosophy department.”

I asked Haimo whether there seemed to be a dominant vernacular at Harvard. (When I was a student there, people talked a lot about things being “reified.”) Haimo told me that there was: the language of statistics. One of the leading courses at Harvard now is introductory statistics, enrolling some seven hundred students a semester, up from ninety in 2005. “Even if I’m in the humanities, and giving my impression of something, somebody might point out to me, ‘Well, who was your sample? How are you gathering your data?’ ” he said. “I mean, statistics is everywhere. It’s part of any good critical analysis of things.”

It struck me that I knew at once what Haimo meant: on social media, and in the press that sends data visualizations skittering across it, statistics is now everywhere, our language for exchanging knowledge. Today, a quantitative idea of rigor underlies even a lot of arguments about the humanities’ special value. Last school year, Spencer Glassman, a history major, argued in a column for the student paper that Harvard’s humanities “need to be more rigorous,” because they set no standards comparable to the “tangible things that any student who completes Stat 110 or Physics 16 must know.” He told me, “One could easily walk away with an A or A-minus and not have learned anything. All the STEM concentrators have this attitude that humanities are a joke.”

Another of my student correspondents sent me a viral TikTok post in which a fit young woman wearing short shorts sprinkler-danced around her dorm room while the song “Twerkulator” played and STEM-tastic slogans flashed across the screen. “Do I like studying science or does it just fuel my god complex?” one read. “Am I smart or was I just at a high reading level in elementary school?” Equivalent humanities TikToks had a different energy. “I want to read philosophy while listening to classical music with my glasses on my head,” one Harvard TikTok-er for the humanistic cause enthused.

Haimo and I turned back toward Harvard Square. “I think the problem for the humanities is you can feel like you’re not really going anywhere, and that’s very scary,” he said. “You write one essay better than the other from one semester to the next. That’s not the same as, you know, being able to solve this economics problem, or code this thing, or do policy analysis.” This has always been true, but students now recognized less of the long-term value of writing better or thinking more deeply than they previously had. Last summer, Haimo worked at the HistoryMakers, an organization building an archive of African American oral history. He said, “When I was applying, I kept thinking, What qualifies me for this job? Sure, I can research, I can write things.” He leaned forward to check for passing traffic. “But those skills are very difficult to demonstrate, and it’s frankly not what the world at large seems in demand of.”

The assistant professor Brandi Adams’s English 206: Introduction to Literary Studies met in one of A.S.U.’s biology buildings. “It looks like a closet door,” she told me when giving directions to the classroom. When I slipped in one morning, Adams—salt-and-pepper hair worn in a high bun, glasses with translucent frames gradually drifting down her nose—was surveying her students about the course syllabus.

“We read ‘Beowulf.’ We read ‘Tears of the Trufflepig,’ by Fernando Flores. We read ‘The Roman Actor,’ by Philip Massinger. We read sonnets by Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt, Terrance Hayes, and Billy Collins,” she said.


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