The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it. Preliminary data suggest that hiring is at an all-time low. Entire subfields (modernism, Victorian poetry) have essentially ceased to exist. In some years, top-tier departments are failing to place a single student in a tenure-track job.
The Chronicle Review has released a free collection on Endgame: Can Literary Studies Survive (PDF) Endgame is a collection of short essays about the collapse of literary studies in the US. The same is probably true of the other fields in the interpretative humanities and social sciences. This collection gives a human face to the important (and depressing) article Benjamin Schmidt wrote in The Atlantic about the decline in humanities majors since 2008, The Humanities Are In Crisis.
Almost every humanities field has seen a rapid drop in majors: History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s. Student majors have dropped, rapidly, at a variety of types of institutions. Declines have hit almost every field in the humanities (with one interesting exception) and related social sciences, they have not stabilized with the economic recovery, and they appear to reflect a new set of student priorities, which are being formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom.
What is interesting is Schmidt’s speculation about what is the cause of the drop – prospective students have changed their view of the value of the humanities (despite the truth.)
Right now, the biggest impediment to thinking about the future of the humanities is that, thanks to this entrenched narrative of decline—because we’ve been crying wolf for so long—we already think we know what’s going on. The usual suspects—student debt, postmodern relativism, vanishing jobs—are once again being trotted out. But the data suggest something far more interesting may be at work. The plunge seems not to reflect a sudden decline of interest in the humanities, or any sharp drop in the actual career prospects of humanities majors. Instead, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying—in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market. And something essential is being lost in the process.
Interestingly, there is a similar drop in Anglican membership; a report (docx) suggests there will be no more members of the Anglican church by 2040 at the current rate. I doubt there really is a connection, though there might be in the minds of prospective students.