Doctorate Degrees in the Humanities: Exclusive Domain of the Aristocracy and Upper Class Once Again?

Until the Second World War, academics associated with history, philosophy and English departments at the major universities of Europe and America were almost exclusively drawn from the aristocracy and the upper classes. Even to this day, it can be argued that the humanities are dominated mainly by the sons and daughters of affluence, in contrast to those scholars engaged in STEM subjects. My question is, with all the talk about the supposed collapse of the humanities over these past five years, will all the inroads made after the war into making the humanities more socially inclusive be all for naught? Will history, English and Philosophy departments at the major universities return to being reserved exclusively for ‘old-money’ elites?

I would look at student loans. (Who takes them out and who pays them back.) But you are off base regarding STEM vs. Humanities. ALL higher education was for people that could afford it before the wide availability of student loans. There has not been any collapse in the humanities. There are simply very few jobs in those areas proportional to the number of people graduating with PhDs.

There is a long-term bubble emerging in student loans.

Can it? Got a cite for that?

I teach in a college with a few hundred fellow PhDs, and I certainly don’t find that my humanities colleagues come from more “affluent” backgrounds than those in other fields.

Perhaps I should have detached American academe from this generalsation. Nonetheless, I think I would be safe to infer that in the UK and continental Europe the study and teaching of the humanities was dominated by people from privileged backgrounds. It was tradition in Britain amongst aristocratic families that while the eldest son inherited the title and land, they younger siblings sought opportunities in the Church, the Military and Academe. Until the twentieth-century, fellows lecturing in the humanities at Oxford and Cambridge were almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of the nobility, while those practising the liberal professions such as medicine and law had risen out of the middle-classes. This tradition carried on to some degree in the first half of the last century, but phased out mostly as the aristocracy ceased to matter and were increasingly replaced by a wealthy commercial/managerial upper-middle-class - some of whom who actually had ancestral connections to the aristocracy, albeit usually limited. Nevertheless, even to this day you can’t help but notice that in British universities the arts and humanities are still dominated by those from affluent backgrounds while those reading or teaching STEM subjects and the social sciences seem to be drawn from across the board, but especially from working-class and middle-class homes.

After the war these walls of privilege began to break down as many clever students from humble backgrounds gained entrance to the great universities. Having limited resources it was not surprising that many chose to gear their education toward the practical, more vocational subjects such as engineering, medicine, law, accounting, business; as opposed to more loftier pursuits such as classics, art history, English, philosophy or history. Thus, as time progressed the faculty at most major universities also reflected this change in class structure. The humanities lagged in their inclusiveness, but they still managed to attract more than just the usual posh boys from Surrey.

However, in lieu of the Depression of 2008 and the subsequent changes made in access to Higher Education, many university administrators are noticing a startling lack of working-class students opting to read humanities subjects, preferring instead the STEM subjects. Meanwhile, history and English departments around Britain are still receiving the same number of applicants from affluent, upper-middle-class households. Consequently, if this trend continues it will produce less working-class people pursuing doctorates in humanities subjects and thus, an inevitable return to the land of Brideshead Revisited. I’ll also wager that if this trend continues you will see history, English and philosophy departments in many British and European universities close. Yes, even Russell Group universities will be affected. The humanities will e limited to only a certain few privileged lofty institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol and possibly one or two of the London universities. That’s it! The same will happen in America, as state universities will no longer fund these subjects. The Ivy League would be the only place to obtain a classical education in America. Sad, but I think this is the future.

Universities/Colleges are subject to the same market forces of demand, like any other profit driven enterprise. What damage is done when students are less interested in the liberal arts than in STEM subjects? If students one day realize that they need a better “classical” education, they will demand it and the pendulum will swing back. But I don’t see what wealth has to do with it. Wealthy people have always had the luxury of not having to worry very much about ultimately making a living based on their degree.

And I seriously doubt the pendulum is going to swing as far as the OP forebodes, at least in the US. While the postwar boom in humanities may never again be the academic norm (and as this article points out, that boom was actually quite recent in origin), I don’t think that most colleges and universities are going to end up completely dismantling their humanities departments.

Certainly not if enrollment keeps up, but decline due to lack of employment prospects is a good thing, imo.

Do you mean that it’s appropriate for humanities departments (or any other departments) to contract if they experience a persistent decline in undergraduate enrollments (which I would agree with, btw)?

Or do you mean that it’s a good thing if college graduates in humanities can’t get jobs?

If the latter, I would disagree that that’s a good thing, and I’d also disagree that it reflects current reality. The present job market is tough for everybody, certainly, but a good humanities degree will always be a desirable qualification for some careers.

They do decline-by hiring less faculty and increasing class sizes-this applies to all public universities as far as I can tell.

No I value and think employers should value liberal arts, but I dont think they do as much as they, or universities attest. The bottom line is that people that need to work should be practical in their choice of career, and STEM appears to have a fairly low unemployment rate.

I can’t speak to modern academia, but I would dispute English universities being the preserve of the aristocracy up to WWII. They had a bad reputation during the 18th century — as did the Anglican church, with which they were symbiotically linked ( one aristocrat’s grandmother [ Coke of Norfolk — no title ] gave him the very expensive Grand Tour of Europe on condition he didn’t go to university ) — compared certainly to Scottish and German universities; and although some aristocrats attended, they generally did not research or teach.

During the 19th they continued to draw mainly from the gentry, and particularly the section which supplied priests, vicars and rectors; but also, under the influence of the new middle-classes and their sponsoring new universities without a commitment to the Anglican church, allowed in the non-gentry upper middle classes ( lawyers, professionals etc. ), and of course mainly through the church and luck of getting a patron to fund an individual, from the middle ages on there were places for intelligent students from the lower classes. Goldsmith was poor enough to work as a sizar when he went to Dublin, and Porson the great Greek scholar, of peasant stock, was subsidized all his life, starting when the local squire paid for his education.

So I would guess professorships, and that ornamental staff universities had ( vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors, masters, regents etc. ) would have mainly come by the 20th century from the middle classes — think Forsytes ( who were a couple of generations from the farm ) — the upper middle classes: gentry and perhaps minor aristos; and the diligent working class. Certainly not the nobility, who if the grandest of aristocrats, were also the most rarefied.
Yesterday, I read an article on Herbert Butterfield, Master of Peterhouse, who gave a well-deserved kicking to the Whig tradition in the 1930s ( and most aristocrats are whigs at heart ), it states Noel Annan ( I recently looked through his reminiscences of the War, and Post-War Germany ) called him ‘‘a Methodist with a twinkling eye, a fascinator whose chief pastime was academic intrigue’, which isn’t very aristo… Quite apart from the fact his father was a clerk who left school at 10.

One recent study of Victorian Oxbridge students concluded that their background was mostly lower middle-class.

(Yes, Rubinstein has bonkers views on a whole range of subjects, but this is the sort of study for which he is very highly regarded.)

That’s certainly the goal of the right.

Humanities is dangerous to oppressive right-wingers, because it helps to demolish the justifications for their oppression. So they’re trying to once again make it the exclusive domain of the people on top, who on the whole are likely to have less interest in pursuing justice.

It’s even more diabolical than that. The underlying argument is that “college isn’t for everyone.” Any guesses who college supposably isn’t for?

It’s all about decreasing competition for upward mobility low by keeping as many people as you can out of the market. Yeah, kids, education is a waste of time. Nothing to see here. Your better off being a plumber than applying to the schools my kids are applying to.

Excellent reply! Finally, somebody sees my point! Thank-you for getting to the heart of the original statement and not sparring over historical interpretation or dithering about petty semantics.

I think you’re looking at it backward; the fact that there are no jobs in the humanities isn’t a new thing really; there were no shortage of jokes about burger-flipping humanities majors 25 years ago when I went to college.

The difference is that back then (1991-1995), humanities majors could end up doing a lot of other professional-type jobs that weren’t really in their field- stuff like consulting, teaching, etc… Nowadays, those alternative jobs aren’t there, so there’s a huge amount of unemployment among humanities majors.

Add to that a fair amount of growth in the number of PhDs of all stripes, and you get a situation where especially in the humanities, college teaching jobs are scarce as hen’s teeth.

On one hand, it should mean that if humanities faculties are picking the best candidates as professors, we’re getting a particularly capable set of professors. On the other, it puts a lot of people with a lot of irrelevant education in a hard position without employment, and without much prospect of employment commensurate with their educational level.

In the longer term, I think you’ll see a contraction of the number of students studying the humanities, and a larger proportion of those will be wealthy than before, because they won’t necessarily need to have the degree in order to get a good job / have enough money.

This doesn’t point to any diabolical plot to disallow education from the poor or less wealthy, but rather just cause and effect- if the jobs aren’t there, people will quit majoring in that kind of thing. For example, I bet that in the next 50 years, the number of petroleum engineering students will start to seriously decline as oil ceases to be the dominant energy form used for transportation.

If the market rewards STEM majors with higher salaries and working class individuals decide to go that route while old-money folks choose humanities what is the problem exactly? The old money folks can wax poetic about frivolous bullshit while the working class contributes to the welfare of the common man by building and producing in ever greater quantities AND decreases the gap between himself and the elite. It’s a win-win situation, as voluntary behavior always is. In any case, whether the humanities are dominated by the rich or poor, they always seem to end up water carriers for the establishment.

That probably accounts for the fact that all the great academic work was done by the Victorians. The decline of quality work in the humanities is astonishing and significant. Where are the Jowetts today?

It’s not frivolous. It’s the work done by scholars in the humanities that are foundational to social improvement.

That’s the exact opposite of what the humanities have become over the last fifty years or so, thankfully.

This is the exact opposite of true. We’re doing much better, because now we know how to deconstruct and reflexively analyze and engage with the tacit assumptions that underlay earlier scholarship, and are responsible for its being fundamentally flawed.

I’m feel uneasy about letting the wealthy and well-to-do dominate the humanities. Many of America’s great laureates have come from humble beginnings. The way we view the world and the things we think about are all shaped by life experiences. Why should philosophy be the domain of the leisure class? If all our essayists and social commentators all enjoying the same privileged background, then only the views and opinions of the privileged get aired and discussed. If you think TV and films lacks diversity now…if you think history is one-sided and biased now…imagine what these things would look like if these areas were restricted to the rich.