In 1922, Austrian art historian Josef Stryzgowski lectured in Boston on "The Crisis in the Humanities as Exemplified in the History of Art." In 1964, British historian J.H. Plumb published a volume of essays entitled The Crisis in the Humanities. Between 1980 and 2000 a "crisis in the humanities" was discussed more than a hundred times in the pages of major scholarly journals. Is there anything new to be said about it? Has the hypochondriac finally come down with a life-threatening disease?

Certain forms of apprehension do seem built into the very structure of the modern humanities. I found no record of Stryzgowski's lectures, but Plumb's complaints from 1964 sound familiar: overspecialization; triviality; insularity; fragmentation; and opaque, overly technical writing. Just two years later, a certain James Newcomer, professor of English at Texas Christian University, identified a threat to the humanities almost identical to the one classicist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum warns about in her 2010 Not for Profit: "Since the sciences are … exerting a dominant influence on the activities of the universities, the humanities are in danger of being forced into practices … that can end only in diminishing still further their effectiveness in modifying the character and the customs of our society." And in 1975, a writing teacher named Mel Topf discussed much the same list of problems that Harvard professor Louis Menand sees as critical in his 2010 Marketplace of Ideas: "declining public support, declining enrollments as students turn away from the liberal arts to professional studies, and overproduction of Ph.D.'s."