Post-2008 Knowledge & the Future of the Humanities (and Area Studies)

For the past decade I’ve been thinking and writing about the declining interest among students in History, the Humanities, Asian Studies, etc., and I’ve recently gotten a better sense of what the future is going to look like.

In 2018, historian Benjamin Schmidt wrote a report that documented a dramatic decline in the number of students in the US majoring in Humanities subjects, such as history, in the years following the 2008 economic crisis (the image below contains updated 2019 statistics).

During those years I served as the undergraduate advisor for the History Department at the University of Hawaii and had access to statistics about the number of majors. Just as Schmidt’s report documented, I watched the number of History majors steadily decline during those years to about 50% of the pre-2008 level.

Schmidt argued that the economic crisis led students to choose majors that could ensure employment. A Humanities major can’t do that, and hence the decline in the number of students majoring in subjects like History.

While I think that’s definitely part of the issue, I’ve always felt that technological changes are also responsible for reducing the number of students interested in studying the Humanities. In the years right before the 2008 economic crisis, there were numerous technological innovations that emerged: Google, Facebook, the iPhone, YouTube, etc.

Those innovations brought enormous changes to the world, particularly in the way that people communicate, and those changes have left fields like History, which still largely follows a print-age logic, less relevant and less attractive.

As such, I would argue that these enormous technological changes are another fact that has reduced interest in subjects like History, and for the sake of convenience, we can also see 2008 as a turning point for that technological transformation.

Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that there is a third way that 2008 is impacting fields like History, namely that post-2008 knowledge is starting to be institutionalized in universities and that this will lead Humanities majors to decline even further.

As I saw my analog world of History falling behind the digital transformations in the world in the early 2010s, I decided to “up my game” by embracing the opportunities that technology makes possible. From blogging and developing web pages, to learning the principles of content marketing and data analytics, to making videos and learning animation and motion graphics, I have spent a ton of time over the past several years learning new skills and knowledge, and learning that all online.

Recently, however, I realized something important about the people who have been teaching me those skills and that knowledge. . . Many of them are people who graduated from university in or around 2008, the year that the job market collapsed.

In particular, over the past several months I’ve been listening to a lot of podcast interviews with people in a wide range of fields, from digital marketing to motion graphics. These interviews are all with people who are “at the top of their game” in their given field, and invariably these people are all in their early to mid-30s, meaning that they all started to build their careers in the aftermath of 2008.

Let’s go back in time 12 years and put ourselves in their shoes. You have a university degree, but there are no jobs. There are these new technological developments (the smartphone, Google), but there is no “road map” for what people can do with them.

In the 12 years that followed, many of these people worked their asses off to try to figure out what they can do, and as they did so, they experimented with all kinds of new technologies, learning on their own, and making use of a vital new source of information: YouTube.

As they learned, they participated in the development of new “fields” of knowledge that emerged as people made ever more use of new technologies: responsive web design (making website viewable on screens, tablets and phones), content marketing, infographics, search engine optimization, motion graphics, user experience design, visual effects, etc.

As they gained expertise in these new skills, these people began to teach others. Existing online training sites like expanded dramatically to include these new, and sought after, subjects, and they brought on board people from this “2008 generation” to teach those subjects.

Meanwhile, other members of this generation established their own online training sites, like School of Motion.

These developments left universities far behind, as they were filled with professors who had been hired before 2008, and who did not even know that most of these new fields that were being taught online even existed (and universities get criticized a lot for this in podcast interviews).

At the same time, however, businesses and organizations desperately needed people who understood these new fields, as they are all critical for communicating in the current digital age.

Not surprisingly, over the past couple of years, I’ve started to see signs that some universities are trying to adapt, and it is interesting to see how they are doing that.

In some cases, it is relatively easy to incorporate new fields into existing academic structures. Many business departments, for instance, now have courses in social media marketing, whereas just a few years ago such courses did not exist. They are able to do this because their professors have to keep up with what is happening in the business world in order to teach about it.

For the Humanites, by contrast, it is much more difficult to incorporate the new fields of knowledge that have emerged since 2008, because many professors in Humanities departments have not engaged with the post-2008 digital world and do not have the knowledge to teach about these subjects.

That said, I came across this advertisement from a new university, Duke Kunshan University, that is for a position in “Digital Media Practice” and it is clear that this position is meant to introduce some of these new fields of knowledge.

This position is listed as an “Arts and Humanities” job, and the successful applicant will be expected to contribute to the “major in Media and Arts and a forthcoming major in Computation and Design.”

As for what “digital media practice” actually is, the job description lists the following: “digital design, computation, data visualization and information aesthetics, interactive graphics, 3d modelling and animation, ubiquitous computing.”

These topics are basically the exact same topics that I’m current learning online so that I can improve my ability to make videos, as well as visuals for my blog and other web pages. They are all part of the new forms of knowledge that have emerged since 2008, and they are all essential for communicating today.

What’s important to note, however, is that the institutional home for this knowledge at Duke Kunshan University is not in a traditional Humanities department, but instead, in new departments that are purposefully designed to meet the needs of the new world we live in.

This makes perfect sense because professors in traditional Humanities departments do not have the knowledge of these topics to be able to incorporate them into their work and to teach students about them.

However, while it is easy to see the logic for housing “digital media practice” in a new department, it is also easy to see that this institutional structure will deliver a further blow to the Humanities.

To understand that, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an 18-year-old today. You’ve grown up in the post-2008 age. You’re not sure what to major in at university, but you know that you want to be able to do all of the cool things that you see every day on your iPhone.

Let’s see, you can major in Media and Arts and learn all of that stuff, or you can major in History and do all of the same things that your parents and grandparents did in university pre-2008. . .

I think it is obvious what our imagined future university student will choose. I also think that it is obvious that many universities will follow in Duke Kunshan University’s footsteps.

There is a massive body of new knowledge that is “out there” that universities are going to claim in an effort to catch up with the tremendous changes that have taken place since 2008. They will “institutionalize” that knowledge (as universities do), and the Humanities will definitely not benefit from that institutionalization.

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