A primary stimulus for the concern is a startling factoid: only 8 percent of undergraduates major in humanities. But this figure is misleading. It does not include majors in closely related fields such as history, journalism and some of the social sciences. Nor does it take account of the many required and elective humanities courses students take outside their majors. Most important, the 8 percent includes only those with a serious academic interest in literature, music and art, not those devoted to producing the artistic works that humanists study.
Once we recognize that deeply caring about the humanities (including the arts) does not require majoring in philosophy, English or foreign languages, it’s not at all obvious that there is a crisis of interest in the humanities, at least in our universities.
Is the crisis rather one of harsh economic reality? Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.
But this data does not show that business majors earn more because they majored in business. Business majors may well be more interested in earning money and so accept jobs that pay well even if they are not otherwise fulfilling, whereas people interested in the humanities and the arts may be willing to take more fulfilling but lower-paying jobs. College professors, for example, often know that they could have made far more if they had gone to law school or gotten an M.B.A., but are willing to accept significantly lower pay to teach a subject they love.
This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.