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Amid much handwringing about the future of books and arts, the Academy of American Arts and Sciences released its annual report on the state of the humanities last week. “The State of the Humanities: Higher Education 2015” comes at a time when apocalyptic prognoses for the field are not uncommon. “This past year was marked by considerable debate about the health of the humanities in higher education,” the introduction notes. But, while the Academy of American Arts and Sciences details some negative developments, it also gives humanists cause for cautious optimism.

For one thing, reports on the death of departments have been exaggerated. The number of humanities departments seems to have remained relatively stable. More students take Advanced Placement exams in the humanities than in social sciences, natural sciences, math, or computer science. And the percent of doctoral candidates in the humanities is 8.2% higher than it was in 2007, when it fell to 7.3%.

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Though the percent of humanities majors in the US has dropped from 12% to 10%, the report urges readers to put quantitative data in perspective. The impact of humanistic disciplines does not always lend itself to numerical analysis. Discussions that focus “on the number of students earning degrees in the humanities … [tend] to prioritize the economic value of the degrees over the broader social value of the skills and knowledge imparted by the humanities disciplines,” the introduction wisely notes. This conclusion — that quantitative information isn’t always the best measure of success — is the most humanistic of all.

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...