The Decline or Rise of the Humanities?

Recent reports on Finnish universities’ plans to cut humanities degree programmes have aroused fears that the humanities as a whole are in a state of a free fall. What has been of particular concern for many is the allegedly rushed, undemocratic, and almost random manner in which decisions on these cuts are now being carried out. Or rather, are said to be carried out as, in fact, at the time of writing this blog hardly any such decisions have yet been taken by those universities that have so far been mentioned in this context, including UEF. Yet it should be evident to all who have followed the discussions on universities’ structural reforms over the last couple of years that some changes are under way in the humanities just as well as in several other fields of study. Since this topic is likely to occupy front-page headlines in both national and local news media for some time to come, it is worthwhile having a look at the reasons behind these developments.

One is the diminishing demand for labour in some areas of the humanities. Teachers of most foreign languages except English are one example. This is a reflection of the rapidly declining numbers of school-students opting for these subjects in school, not to mention those of school-students choosing them as one of the subjects for their Matriculation Exams. For example, the number of pupils taking the exam in German Language (Advanced and Short courses combined) dropped from 6,038 in the year 2007 to 2,296 in 2015, so down to about one third in less than a decade. The figures for French Language reveal a more or less similar development. What is worse, this downward trend is set to continue unless some drastic steps are taken especially in areas outside the major cities to enable and encourage school-students to pick up German or French as one of their subjects. Now almost half of the examinees in these subjects come from Helsinki and the province of Uusimaa. In the light of these statistics it is not surprising that the numbers of applicants wanting to study these subjects at university are declining. The reality is that universities now find themselves struggling to fill their student quotas in some of these subjects, which forces them to make adjustments to their study programmes.

Apart from language subjects, some other arts and humanities subjects have also witnessed a decline in numbers of applicants but so have some of the sciences as well. Yet the pressure for cuts appears to have been much greater on humanities programmes than those in other fields. This is then easily interpreted as showing that the humanities are in a “crisis”, as has been done in some recent newspaper reports on higher education. What seems to support this is the reportedly similar situation in many other countries if not worldwide even. You only need to google “humanities cutbacks” and several hits come up referring to cutbacks in humanities programmes in Norway, Germany, the UK, Israel, Japan, and the US, to list but a few. More often than not, these measures are accompanied by curtailment of funding for those programmes that have remained.

Are the humanities then doomed to be wiped out altogether? The true picture may, after all, be less negative than it seems at first glance. I recently came across an essay entitled “The Rise of the Humanities” by Peter Mandler, Professor of Cultural History at Cambridge University (available at https://aeon.co/essays/the-humanities-are-booming-only-the-professors-can-t-see-it ). In this essay he analyses the situation in the humanities especially with respect to student enrollment numbers in the UK, US, and Australia. Mandler notes, first, that the talk of a crisis in the humanities has become so customary, an “orthodoxy”, to use his expression, that few have bothered to find out if there is real evidence to back up such rhetoric. Mandler himself has conducted a longitudinal study of the enrollments in humanities in the English-speaking world for over the last half-century. His results show that there has been hardly any change in the proportion of students studying humanities within that period. Indeed, in absolute numbers and despite fluctuations over the years, there are now more humanities students in the English-speaking world than ever before. In the US, as Mandler writes, the proportion of humanities degrees has remained stable at 10-12 per cent of all degrees ever since the 1950s. The only major change occurred in the 1960s and 1970s at the time which saw a significant influx of women into higher education. In the subsequent decades the situation changed only in that women turned in increasing numbers to more “professional” fields of study such as business, journalism, communication studies, and social work, while men continued to maintain their interest in humanities at the same level as before. Mandler’s conclusion, therefore, is that there is no real basis for the talk of a crisis, and that the humanities have proved resilient enough even in the face of tough competition from other, seemingly more attractive and financially more tempting, fields of study. That in itself shows that the humanities continue to be capable of serving important cultural and societal needs in the rapidly changing world.

Turning back to the current situation in Finland, the need for changes and possible cutbacks in the universities’ offering of courses in the humanities should be assessed against their wider background, and the consequences of any drastic changes should be carefully analysed before implementing them. Needless to say, rushed decisions and measures on the part of universities and other policy-makers can be irreversible and carry the risk of destroying something that will cause permanent damage to some areas of scholarship. Even those areas that at first glance look too small to be viable may play an important role as part of a larger and meaningful field of research or study programme. As for humanists themselves, rather than surrendering to the rhetoric of “crisis”, they should find ways of renewing their disciplines, by seeking points of connection and concrete forms of collaboration with other disciplines and study programmes – something that they have already begun doing and should continue to do.

filppulaMarkku Filppula
dean, Philosophical Faculty