The Humanities in Dubious Battle

What a new Harvard report doesn't tell us

Marta Antelo for The Chronicle

July 01, 2013

Have you heard about the classics major who intends to be a military surgeon? Or the employers who think entry-level interviewees ought to show up having read the company history? No, of course you haven't.

Those people are not just unmentionable, they're unthinkable—at least in the vast, buzzing worlds of the news media, the blogosphere, and the many TED Talks. No one who studies the humanities could possibly have a practical career in view, anymore than someone who has a practical career in view would ever bother studying the humanities, right? And in the corporate world, only the CEOs, not the HR people, value a liberal education. Why would a company like Enterprise Rent-A-Car care if a prospective employee took the initiative to read the company history? What could the study of the past contribute to a career in, say, medicine?

This is all common knowledge. And common knowledge is dead wrong, as it so often is. That classics major not only exists, but also took a seminar that one of us (Grafton) taught this spring, and wrote an excellent term paper on Spinoza's Hebrew grammar. Meanwhile, a half-dozen recruiters informed the other of us (Grossman) that their companies would like to see more college graduates with the skills of history majors—once we helped them realize what those skills were.

Such students—what they know and what they can do—are what the whole discussion about the future of the humanities should focus on.

But it seldom does. Academics always want to show we're serious these days by talking numbers. And two problems arise when we do that. We get the numbers wrong, and we forget that the numbers can't tell us everything. On May 31, for example, Harvard University issued a report, "The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future." It traces the decline of humanities enrollments there, drawing an "overall picture ... of slow to steep decline, depending on how one defines the humanities," over the past half-century. "Without counting history as one of the humanities, the percentage of humanities concentrators falls from 24 to 17; counting history, the fall is steeper, from 36 to 20."

Despite its worried tone, the report plausibly argues that all is not lost, at least among the elite. Harvard—like its peer institutions Yale and Princeton—clearly continues to have a higher proportion of undergraduatehumanists than the national average: 20 percent is better than 7 or 8 percent. Students who do major in the humanities at Harvard report more satisfaction with their teachers than students in the university's other divisions do. The report's practical recommendations for making up lost ground include a systematic effort to reach more undergraduates in their first year with effective gateway courses—an entirely sensible idea, since few students reach any college nowadays with much sense of what the humanities are about. More generally, the authors tell us, humanists must realize that they need to turn away from their narrow professional concerns and address students, and the larger public, in order to show that that their discipline offers value as well as values.

The report is informative and reasonable, and its suggestions are constructive. But its impact has not been what its authors probably intended. The Wall Street Journal, which devoted a detailed article to the Harvard report on June 6, emphasized the statistics and treated them as a portent of crisis: "Humanities Fall From Favor." More numbers entered the story. The Journal cited the national decline in humanities majors to explain what's happening at Harvard. After all, the article pointed out, enrollments in humanities generally are in steep decline, from 14 percent of all undergraduates in 1966 to 7 percent in 2010, so Harvard is feeling the same pain that everyone else feels. Many other news media have adopted such a take: What Harvard is telling us is what we already knew—that the humanities, in American universities, are in free fall.

The Journal article—like the Harvard report itself—relied on a well-known graph from the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which supposedly traces the great decline. The fact is, though, as Michael Bérubé has pointed out again and again: The graph doesn't show what everyone says it does. Enrollments in the humanities rose, from 14 percent in 1966 to 18 percent in 1970; they fell precipitously in the 1970s; and then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they recovered somewhat and have remained the same ever since, hovering between 7 and 10 percent.

Benjamin Schmidt, a historian and visiting fellow at Harvard, helped to create the first version of the academy's graph some years ago. Its designers took 1967 as its baseline, he explained in a blog post in The Chronicle, not for any substantive reason but "because that's the earliest the federal government has online records of enrollment."

If you set the baseline farther back, drawing on records that can't be directly consulted online—as Schmidt has done, using printouts of older data—it turns out that humanities enrollments shot upward and peaked in the 1960s. In the 1940s and 1950s, they were at much lower levels—close to the levels that they returned to around 1990 and have remained at ever since.

What we have, then, is not a story of decline, in the humanities as a whole and at Harvard, but one of large-scale fluctuation with a bubble in the middle.

Schmidt ingeniously pointed out that you can reach more-positive results by asking a better question. Not: What percentage of degrees are in the humanities? But: What proportion of the American population, aged 22 to 26, earn bachelor's degrees in the humanities? It turns out that a larger proportion of the student population is studying the humanities now than did so until the 1960s.

Journalists' immediate conclusions reflect conventional wisdom: The humanities is in a long-term decline that began in the 1970s and has continued ever since. And that is not true. It is a misreading of the data that has established itself as a truth through repetition, and which journalists continue to repeat without examination.

History students who learn how to trace footnotes know how easily and how frequently that happens. Like Bérubé, Schmidt has done a major public service in showing that the popular take is wrong. Let's hope that some journalists—and our colleagues—notice what he's written. More important, let's find a way of talking about the numbers that doesn't always lead into the same blind alley.

For example: The data do show that humanities enrollments are much higher at elite private universities than at large public universities. Many will interpret that fact as if it proves the humanities are a luxury. Classics, history, literature, philosophy, and their cousins conjure up images of students from elite families preparing for leadership but worrying little about employment itself.

Once, elite universities were indeed home to disproportionate numbers of humanities majors. But in the 1960s, as opportunities expanded and students' interests and cultures changed, men and women at public universities and elsewhere swarmed into those fields. Many took their training out into the world, while others stayed on for graduate study.

The numbers in the Harvard report suggest that the humanities are again attracting their clientele from the elite (though an elite that differs somewhat from its counterpart in the past). Humanities education provides the foundation for leadership, and wider access to such education implies wider access to positions of leadership.

One chief service of the Harvard report is to make us worry less about Harvard and more about the vast majority of colleges and universities that are not Harvard—institutions that lack not only its resources but also the relative luxury of educating students who are not anxious about their first jobs. Students who think about careers rather than jobs are more likely to tilt toward a humanities degree. Moreover, national statistics conceal the fact that some public universities have full humanities classrooms. At Old Dominion University, the College of Arts & Letters is the largest on the campus. If we really want to understand the situation of the humanities, we need to know, in detail, about many institutions, at every level.

But the biggest problem in the Harvard report is the absence of what might be the most important recommendation of all. As the case of our prospective military surgeon suggests, plenty of students, at elite and other colleges, study the humanities in the conviction that they can do so and still pursue a wide range of careers. Some of them might even be aware that physicians meeting new patients begin by "taking a history." Our undergraduate majors (and minors) know that this should not mean just soliciting facts and dates. It implies instead a way of thinking about the patient's past. Other students are making different decisions, with different pathways in mind.

What we need to hear—and what the Harvard report doesn't offer us—are their voices. We also need to hear the voices of those whose lives are touched by these humanities majors after college, whether at the workplace or in the community.

What makes some students believe that being humanists will make them better doctors, better lawyers, better advertising experts? What do they find, in their courses, to keep them in departments of English and history and Romance languages? How are we helping them to articulate what they bring to the world beyond the university, so they can tell those stories more effectively? How can we make those stories available to new undergraduates as they decide what to study?

It's not by worrying about the numbers, in the end, that we will find out what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong as teachers. Nor is it by closing our ears (not to mention our minds) to the various communities beyond the academy in which our former students live and work—and in which we live and work.

It's by listening, as humanists do best, to stories, and seeing what the narratives can teach us. Open your ears and—we promise you—you'll hear stories that don't resemble what you read in the media.

Have you heard about the professor of neurology who, as a student, learned to do research by writing a prize-winning senior thesis in history on the death of Captain Cook? No, of course you haven't. But he exists, too, and so do thousands more. They live all over the country, and they work in all sorts of jobs. We need to learn more about what they are doing and how their humanities education has played a continuing role in their lives.

Counting won't get us where we have to go. We need to talk, and even more, we need to listen.

Anthony T. Grafton is a professor of history at Princeton University and a former president of the American Historical Association. James Grossman is executive director of the association.