In the first chapter of his history of higher education, Francis Oakley said the following:

The upheaval occasioned by the Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion ushered in a period of disruption, sponsoring the heavy-handed encroachment by governmental and ecclesiastical authority upon the traditional liberties of university life, impeding the free flow of teachers, students and ideas across what had once been but now no longer was an international community of learning. We now know, however, that this phase was followed in the seventeenth century, and it seems, all over Europe, by "a period of astonishing growth..., [with] a staggering number of students...pouring into the universities." Even the subsequent era of low enrollments and declining intellectual vitality (especially marked in England, France, Spain and Italy) which lasted from the latter part of the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, and which led reformers in France and Germany to call for the abolition of universities, was not one of unrelieved torpor in the academic world. The Dutch universities, for example, constituted something of an exception. In their curriculum and the scholarship they fostered, they responded to the burgeoning of the natural sciences. > >

I’m far from the first to note that we’re living through the longue durée of higher education change. This passage by Oakley struck me because it seems like we could replace certain historical reference points like the religious wars with the upheaval occasioned by terrorism and the internet. Other concerns like low enrollments and “declining intellectual vitality” resonate as being the same issues we think about today. Of course, early modern universities were not the same as colleges and universities in North America today. But it seems like this evidence from the more distant past is yet another reason not to panic about a “crisis” in low humanities enrollments. 


From_ Community of Learning: The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition (_New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 21.