Crisis in the humanities? What crisis? If there is one, it is not of the kind commonly supposed. The evidence proves that funding is collapsing, student recruitment wavering or plunging, and academic posts vanishing. But understandable concern over these problems masks deeper troubles, which are not the result of the economic travails that arts departments undergo, or matters of the prestige or popularity of the disciplines they teach, but intellectual challenges that arise from within the humanistic tradition and its encounters with science.

A sense of crisis erupted in arts departments in US universities last October when George M. Philip, president of the State University of New York, Albany, announced the closure of most of its degree courses in modern languages, literature, Classics and theatre. He made no serious attempt to justify the move on intellectual grounds, but presented it as a mildly regrettable adjustment to market conditions – the outcome of the need to “rebalance resources”.

The university lost $32 million (£20 million) of state funding in a single year, with a further $12 million expected to go in 2011. What’s left must be concentrated on useful and sought-after programmes, so the argument goes.

Evidence that has poured in from the press since then seems to support this argument. Last month, the American Historical Association reported a 46 per cent drop in the number of history-related jobs advertised with it, the lowest level in 25 years. The previous year, 15 per cent of the ads were withdrawn without appointments being made.

Since then, according to the association’s latest survey, the job market has collapsed, while the longstanding pattern of increasing numbers of students opting for history programmes has faltered and fluctuated. The same pattern, in even more accentuated form, is discernible in literature and philosophy programmes.

Economics, business studies, computer studies and other courses popularly associated with job opportunities have, by contrast, begun to show signs of recovery from the austerity of recent years, attracting relatively more funding, more students and more posts. Now Republicans have proposed abolishing the National Endowment for the Humanities – the world’s largest single source of arts research funding.

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