Is the Study of the Humanities in Decline?

Back to January 2014 Ed Reporter

Is the Study of the Humanities in Decline?

HumanitiesThe Humanities Report Card 2013 and the more detailed The Heart of the Matter are reports by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on the study of “languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, and ethics.” The reports are the culmination of study by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, formed in 2010 at the request of Congress. Since the reports were released in mid-2013, many have addressed the decline in study of the humanities.

It is important to understand from the outset that this decline halted sometime in the mid-1980s and since then the overall rate of study in the humanities has held steady. According to the Humanities Report Card 2013, “Despite reports on the drop in the number of humanities majors since the 1960s, the number of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities has grown appreciably since its nadir in the mid-1980s, with more than 185,000 degrees reported in each year from 2009 to 2011.” There was an overall drop from 14% to 7% from 1970 to 1985, but humanities study has held steady at 7% since then. (New York Times, 10-31-13)

Colleges and universities receive outside funding from the federal government and from businesses to support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) study, but only a few foundations and philanthropies provide any funding for the study of English, foreign language, history, and other humanities subjects.

“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” stated the president of the American Council of Learned Societies. The president of Bard College emphasizes that the study of humanities offers skills that help all students understand values and conflicting philosophical issues, stating, “We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors.” (New York Times, 10-31-13)

Mourning the Humanities: A Sentimental Fantasy?

In a Wall Street Journal essay titled “Who Ruined the Humanities?” author Lee Siegel argues that the hand wringing about the decline in the study of humanities is a ”sentimental fantasy.” He writes that there is no substance to fears that the decline “leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty and goodness.” He goes on to state that students and young adults will read literature and philosophy on their own and simply avoid what he calls the “drudgery and toil” that the classics become when studied in a classroom, which turns them into “bland exercises in competition, hierarchy, and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.”

Mr. Siegel’s observations may indicate the poor teaching ability of the professors he had during his own college career. Further, some may wonder if Siegel encounters any college students of today; they spend hours on social network sites, texting with friends, and engaging in other technological distractions. Can we really expect them at some point to read poetry, literature, and philosophy on their own without the breadth requirements that some colleges still require? The Humanities Report Card indicates that reading for pleasure by Americans declined 11% between 1992 to 2008.

It is true that deconstructing literary works on the basis of class, gender, race, and other artificial constructs detracts from the original intent of the creators of great works and has helped lead to decline in the value of humanities study. Background information about conditions during the author’s lifetime should be given to students, but to ignore the merit of a work itself and instead focus on seeing it through the narrow scope of artificial constructs is always a mistake.

David Brooks describes this in a New York Times op-ed (6-20-13):

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.

Baby Out With Bath Water?

The editors of the Harvard student newspaper, The Crimson, published a veritable obituary for study of the humanities, stating, “We never thought we would see the day when adults were bemoaning the foresight and responsibility of the American youth. But the national anxiety over the decline of the humanities major smacks of exactly that sentiment.” (11-8-13) Harvard University has had a 10% decline in students studying humanities subjects in the last ten years, a higher rate than average across all colleges. Citing an “unforgiving job market” and parental pressure, the editors state that they are “not especially sorry to see the English majors go.” They believe fewer humanities scholars and more STEM students “will mean a greater probability of breakthroughs in research.”

The Crimson editors write, “We refuse to rue a development that has advances in things like medicine, technological efficiency, and environmental sustainability as its natural consequence.” Some may say they are lauding developments that have not yet and may well never occur, as well as showing a juvenile belief that such progress occurs in a STEM vacuum. Equally confusing is their belief that individuals will continue to explore the humanities on their own. “Whether they study history and literature, applied math, or organismic and evolutionary biology, people will continue to seek truth in philosophy, solace in music, and company in the pages of books.” Does the converse apply, that English literature, Greek philosophy, and French majors will explore higher math, and evolutionary biology on their own, without the necessary exposure that allows them to develop an interest in these subjects?

According to the Humanities Report Card, only 13% of college students are learning languages of “critical need,” defined as necessary for “international security and global competitiveness,” a deficiency that could lead to national security issues. The Heart of the Matter, the complete 2013 report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, suggests three goals and makes thirteen recommendations for advancing the humanities and social sciences in America, not just at colleges and universities. Many still believe in the value of the humanities and the study of great classical texts.