Michael Massing’s piece of this title in The New York Review of Books’ NYR Daily is noticed by The Passive Voice.

Traditionally defenders of the humanities have taken the high road: the humanities “promote self-discovery, breed good citizens, and teach critical thinking” as Mr Massing puts it. Personally I think that kind of seals the deal, and no more need be said. College humanities enrollments may be down today, but they are of course much higher than they were fifty years ago when a much smaller proportion of the age cohort went to university. So over the long term what’s really happening is that more people are choosing to do a STEM degree (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and this is surely a good thing. The closure of a few humanities departments is to be regretted for the sake of the people who thus made their living, but doesn’t amount to any kind of crisis in supply.

Maybe one can attempt to measure the effectiveness of university study by comparing the earnings of graduates in various disciplines. Mr Massing tells us that “the median annual earnings for engineering grads is $82,000, compared to $52,000 for humanities grads” and this is less than upsetting to me. Not everyone is motivated solely by money, and it would be a serious error to base public policy on the assumption that they were. This does however seem to be exactly what our politicians are bent on doing in their attempts to save us from the consequences of the 2008 crash. Maybe once we get past populism and the Brexitization of everything we will be able to bring a calmer, saner brain to bear on the issue.

In his piece however Mr Massing takes the low road, if one can call it that. He goes industry by industry pointing out how much value has been created by boobs with mere humanities degrees. Many have made masses of money without ever having studied a STEM subject — can you believe it? Anyway, if  grasping the highest possible starting salary was really what university education was all about, shouldn’t we favor courses not in the sciences but in finance so that all graduates can make those fabulous Wall Street fortunes?

This STEM tide doesn’t seem to have greatly impacted the output of academic publishers. The humanities monograph remains the focus of much of their concern. Most university presses would love to publish more science books. They tend to be priced higher, though they are often more expensive to set, but that’s not why fewer are published. It’s always been hard to persuade science professors to sit still long enough to come up with a book-length manuscript. They tend to spend their lives rushing out shorter papers reporting on their research. The humanities work a bit differently, so expatiating at book length on your favorite topic is a favorite pastime of the serious humanist. Nowadays selling monographs of any flavor gets harder and harder. Here’s Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press sharing the pain in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I say that the fewer copies we print of a book the higher the retail price will have to be; but as long as publication and the sharing of research remains a part of the academic process, a way will (have to) be found to afford the cost. Apart from the immediate post-World-War-II period, when you could sell anything in relatively vast quantities, monographs have never really been anything other than a minority interest carrying an inevitably high price. Sure, if they were cheaper more might be sold (or perhaps not, since part of the “problem” is the splitting up of disciplines into narrower and narrower specialities each with fewer participants) but when all’s said and done if the material is worthwhile people will feel the need to know about it. Just because this may be a bit different from what we grew up with doesn’t mean it’s awful. It’s certainly not terminal.

On the topic of the humanities and the purpose of a university education Jeremy Mynott recommended Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For (Penguin 2012) in a comment on an earlier post of mine on the threatened humanities.