The Humanities in Peril

            Stanford University’s leaders recently announced they were “concerned” about a significant enrollment decline in that university’s outstanding humanities programs and the institution had developed a program for those matriculating as well as for current students explaining the relevance and lifetime benefits of such majors. The initiative aims to attract otherwise interested and able students who have become skittish about pursuing a humanities degree in an era in which such knowledge is routinely derided as irrelevant or worse and publications daily announce the supposed economic and substantive superiority of the so-called STEM disciplines—sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. Harvard University, too, long a bastion of excellence in the humanities, has recently announced a falloff in enrollment in its academic programs in these fields. Wake Forest and other universities have lately shared similar news.

            For these universities and many more, this trend of declining student engagement with the humanities has both practical and elemental implications. As a practical matter, higher education institutions have major sunk investments in faculty members in the humanities disciplines, including philosophy, religion, history, fine arts, music, classics and literature among others that students now appear to be eschewing. Even more fundamentally, exposure to the disciplines, now so often in bad odor with so many students, has long been thought absolutely integral to university education and to what it means in our culture to be an educated man or woman. In consequence, the present trend cuts to the heart of what we collectively take universities to be and to do. The current popular narrative and the student choices it is encouraging point up what Americans increasingly believe is required of their educated population, if they are to live full and meaningful lives. And that vision is ever more truncated and constricted even as it presses universities to remake themselves as vocational training schools rather than to envisage their roles not only as contributing to career preparation, but also to personal, social and civic development more broadly.

            There appear to be at least three often intertwined sources of this distressing tendency of declining interest in the humanities, two long-lived and one more temporary. One deep current is our culture’s practical and restless “can do” bent. Americans want the usable and want to see how ideas can be employed to practical effect to make their lives easier or to help them move ahead. The notion of thinking for its own sake or exploring ideas because they are vital is foreign to many in our population. Hence, the suspicion implicit in the popular name long accorded university or intellectual life, the ivory tower. In this view, really a mythology, life in universities is often imagined as unfathomably alien and effete. That perception is often accompanied by a deep distrust of the notion that ideas might matter for themselves. Many Americans want the practical and doable and they want it now. All other forms of knowledge receive short shrift.

            A second source of apparent growing student (and parent) alienation from the humanities is a fear born of the recent and long-lived economic downturn combined with rising tuition at many universities, which has made the question of the earnings associated with specific university degrees front-page news. Indeed, since journalists began actively to report the purported economic “values” associated with different majors a few years ago, many students (and often, especially, their parents) have operated from a stance of fear that if they choose “wrongly” they will be unable to attain a position on graduation, or they will earn far less than they “ought,” if they do find employment. That fear, according to recent polling data, is driving some to study in so-called “practical” domains in which they actually have little genuine interest.

            A generalized fear of a swiftly changing economy along with personal concerns about indebtedness on graduation is also contributing to the rapid commodification of all higher learning as little more than work toward one’s likely first salary on graduation and/or preparation for one’s initial post, as if that metric could or should capture all that a robust post-secondary education might offer an interested individual. More importantly, this current is surely consistent with the long-term rising tide of consumerism in our culture. We have been increasingly keen as a people in recent decades to assign economic values to almost everything, but we also then go further and narrow our conception of those concerns to the solely economic. We now value lives by their earnings potential, and individuals, not on the basis of their inherent dignity, but whether they can work and how much they can (or once could) command in the market place. We judge political and personal choices by their economic value and for many, democratic politics has become little besides another venue in which the market should be given full reign. Indeed, for many in America, freedom itself has been redefined as the capacity to pursue one’s desires without regard to the needs of others in the broader community, as if self-governance were simply another consumer choice.

            It would be naïve to imagine that higher education could be immune to the forces unleashed by these cultural mega-trends. Nonetheless, the cost of a successful wholesale redefinition of university education as vocational training will be high in at least three significant ways. First, paradoxically, the current social narrative misunderstands the needs of the market place. The changing economy does not require individuals prepared for today’s jobs alone, but for those of the future as well. Those positions will require high-level critical thinking and analytical capacities and those are often derived very effectively by studying the humanities.

            Second, these new jobs also will require, so far as experts can now discern at least, individuals who are intellectually and psychologically adaptive. These aptitudes are the product not simply of serendipity, but of disciplined self-awareness, thoughtful reflection and appropriate communications capabilities. The emerging economy will demand individuals with capacities to work with a diverse array of “others” in an increasingly heterogeneous workplace. These abilities, too, are born not alone of technical acumen, but of deep consideration of the human experience and of the characteristics of human behavior, including its sometimes unfathomable depths of greed, violence and jealousy as well as magnanimity and grace. These capacities of appreciation and judgment, too, are neatly developed by sustained study of topics and concerns offered in the humanities disciplines. As it happens, too, they are closely associated with the capabilities critical to leadership. Perhaps not surprisingly, and for the same reasons, a disproportionate number of chief executives of the nation’s major businesses earned their collegiate degrees in the humanities.

            Finally, a democratic nation requires a deliberative citizenry if it is to succeed in sustaining freedom for its inhabitants. Assuming not all in the society are alike either in characteristics, capacities or family backgrounds, citizenship demands a willingness to accept difference and to find ways to communicate and to empathize imaginatively with others. Self-governance also demands that citizens go further to recognize the dignity of those with whom they might disagree and to acknowledge that they each share an interest in sustaining their common claim to freedom. Study in the humanities can assist individuals in developing just such an awareness and understanding, coupled with the development of the writing and oral communication capabilities to discuss and realize it.

            The growing numbers of parents and students doubting the value of studying humanities surely reflects deeper socio-cultural trends, but it is no less dispiriting for that. Should this tendency persist and finally eliminate the critical role these disciplines have long played in a university education, we will collectively be poorer for the shift. Our nation’s best-educated people, active in all three sectors of our political economy, will be less personally reflective and self-aware on average, less deeply knowledgeable about the strengths and foibles of our species and less capable of participating appropriately in democratic politics. More, millions will be far less prepared for their critical leadership roles in firms, government or civil society. It is, in short, difficult to overestimate the extent of the loss this turn against ensuring a prominent role for the humanities in university curricula potentially represents.