Why Are the Humanities Hurting?

The Barker Center for the Humanities at Harvard University

A slew of opinions regarding the future of the humanities have surfaced in recent weeks after a major report on the humanities called out its dire underfunding and the Wall Street Journal reported that that humanities degrees have dropped from 14% of total college degrees in 1966 to 7% in 2010. At Harvard University in particular, long considered a bastion of a liberal arts education, has waned from 36% of total majors in 1954 to 20% in 2012 [1]. They also reported that 9.5-9.8% unemployment rates for humanities majors, compared to 5.8% for chemistry majors and 5% for elementary education majors.

These numbers have fed a cycle of public disdain for the humanities, with the Journal quoting North Carolina GOP Gov. Patrick McCrory, “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to private school. But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.” In the wake of the 2008 recession, the liberal arts, and the humanities in particular, have had to defend their existence. Collectively, states are spending 10.8 percent less on higher education than they were five years ago, a cut which prompted Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) to suggest that his state’s public universities charge students more for “non-strategic majors,” which Britain’s public (that is to say, almost all) universities now do.

But the humanists fought back. On June 19, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released its report, titled “The Heart of the Matter,” which defended humanities and humanistic social science research in highly patriotic terms as “the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common” [2]. The accompanying video features celebrity humanities majors like Yo Yo Ma, John Lithgow, and George Lucas, but also business leaders and successful figures from non-humanistic fields—including journalist David Brooks.

With a special emphasis on civics and the understanding of democracy, the report suggested that a lack of understanding of one’s own government, cultural heritage, national history, as well as global affairs, other cultures, and other languages, would leave young Americans worse off as citizens and less economically competitive than prior generations. The paradigm example the video uses is putting a man on the moon:

The younger generation, without the humanities, without history, without someone explaining the drama—what it meant—the humanness of it—they just think it’s normal. They just think we’ve always been on the moon, and that getting there is not a big deal.

It goes on to stage a young girl remarking, of Neil Armstrong’s “Giant leap for mankind,” “It didn’t seem like that big of a leap to me.”

The report noted the poor state of reading proficiency and training of non-STEM (Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering) K-12 educators in the United States, though both of these measures have improved slightly since 1994.

In addition to underfunding in education, the report revealed that the humanities have been hit especially hard by federal funding cuts in recent years as “the first to go” when budgets get tight.

Further, these cuts have been especially damaging because the humanities are heavily reliant upon institutional support, which can be volatile. The narrative of humanists as “moochers” who live off federal money and contribute nothing to the public good is, systemically speaking, quite false, especially in comparison to other disciplines.

These figures appear to capture, at the very least, a lack of federal initiative to bolster the humanities, even while they have greatly increased funding in STEM fields. This led the Academy to lament:

At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion—we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.

But has there been such a culture change in federal funding? Are the humanities really getting neglected as part of American culture?

In his Thursday New York Times column, David Brooks gave one plausible explanation for why the humanities have declined in funding and degree enrollment, based on his own liberal arts education at the University of Chicago:

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.

So now the humanities are in crisis. Rescuers are stepping forth. [3]

Brooks’s argument is essentially that humanities are at fault for their own demise. By collectively failing to remain true to their nature, this argument goes, fewer students take interest in the humanities. Yet still others will argue that the humanities are not practical enough, which causes potential students to see less connections between a humanities degree and reasonable chance of employment. But Brooks’s further claim is that the humanities has lost its fire and no longer addresses profound issues that connect with students.

Brooks also summarizes a classic critique conservatives make of the liberal academy: that instead of focusing on fundamental human problems, academics have instead politicized their courses by incorporating issues like gender, race, and politics, thus rendering these courses, “boring” (Brooks is a pretty generous fellow).

While these explanations are plausible, they strike me, as a student of the humanities at Brooks’s alma mater, as seriously misguided. There certainly has been a change since Brook’s time, but it’s not for the worse. The authors of the Academy report, who are distinguished scholars, rightly made the case for the humanities on patriotic grounds, arguing that civics, critical thinking, and communication skills are vital to democracy. If anything, this is what humanities degree programs and scholarship has become more geared towards as budgets get tighter and programs are forced to innovate their curriculum to appeal to more students. Subsequently, the humanities have only become more integrated into the real world in recent years. Several institutions, such as Harvard, as reported in the Journal, have devised new “tracks” or “clusters” that allow majors more flexibility and gear their degrees toward potential jobs and real world applications. Harvard is also expanding its internship opportunities to help humanities majors find jobs in their fields.

Forced to innovate to defend their existence, humanities programs at many such institutions are only becoming richer and more vibrant. The challenge now is not one of reforming the academy—which will never be economically sustainable in the way people like Brooks fantasize. It is of continuing to fight for institutional and federal funding by demonstrating that this outward growth of the humanities into the domain of civic discourse is what will save our democracy. More broadly, it requires a shift toward cultural recognition of the worth of the humanities so that students, from those at elite universities to community colleges, don’t get the message that a humanities degree is worthless and stick solely to more lucrative fields.


[1] Jennifer Levitz and Douglas Belkin, “Humanities Fall From Favor,” The Wall Street Journal (June 6, 2013)
[2] The American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter,” (June 19, 2013)
[3] David Brooks, “The Humanist Vocation,” The New York Times (June 20, 2013)

Photo courtesy of Le Hub

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