Listen to the dire talk around colleges and universities, read op-eds and magazines, and you might think the humanities were in greater danger than the earth’s climate. In fact, despite the overheated rhetoric, the humanities are not at death’s door. Contemporary pressures will more likely push them into a new shape, even ultimately a healthier one.
That claim might seem bizarre. The proportion of college students majoring in the humanities has sunk to an all-time low. Students have turned their backs on art history and literature in favor of studies, like accounting and nursing, that lead directly to jobs. Governors like Florida’s Rick Scott have worked to undercut fields of study not tuned closely to employment. President Obama wants education to stress science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Funds for research in disciplines like history and linguistics are drying up. Congress has already slashed the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and now Rep. Paul Ryan wants to kill it.
Analysts of higher education paint a more ambiguous picture. How many years ago you start counting—either majors or research dollars—determines how gloomy the humanities numbers look. And with more and more Americans going to college only to qualify themselves for work, most time-honored fields of study have taken a hit, not just the humanities. But even at a traditional, elite institution like Stanford, majors in humanities disciplines have fallen so low as to alarm faculty members into unprecedented missionary efforts.
To see how, paradoxically, a starvation diet may rejuvenate the humanities, it helps to take a long view. First of all, the humanities disciplines familiar in American higher education today did not even exist 200 years ago. Sure, in 1814 students learned the Greek and Latin languages, but no discipline called “classics” devoted itself to ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Yes, a college president in that era was likely to lecture on moral philosophy, but the broad range of topics covered by a modern philosophy department had no place in his institution.
As to the other humanities known to us—literature in modern languages, history, art history, comparative study of religions, and so forth—well, a student interested in such subjects could read about them on his own time. (His: In 1814 college-level education for American women still lay in the future.) The first professor in the United States of any modern literature was appointed in 1819, the first professor of history in 1838, the first of art history in 1875 (all, as it happens, at Harvard).
From those relatively recent beginnings, the modern humanities disciplines evolved slowly. Not until a little more than a century ago did they secure a solid footing in the halls of ivy.
Before 1819, of course, scholars edited Shakespeare and Milton; before 1838, they wrote about Roman emperors and the Thirty Years War; before 1875, they studied Greek sculpture and Renaissance painting. But they did those things within a very different, less fragmented ecology of knowledge than today’s.
Whether in ancient Alexandria, in Renaissance Florence, or in early-19th-century Philadelphia, humanistic scholarship formed an interconnected whole. It mostly went on apart from higher education as such. When they focused on texts, on languages, or on literature, erudite humanists commonly called themselves philologists. (The word seems to have been coined in Alexandria in the third century B.C. In America today it usually meets a blank stare.) When they focused on material relics of the past, learned researchers eventually became known as antiquaries or antiquarians.
But philologists and antiquarians remained in close touch; indeed they were often one and the same individual. Today’s academic division of labor would have puzzled them all. Then, the same person might pore over ancient coins, write commentaries on Greek and Roman works, edit Milton, and seek to correct the accepted text of the Bible. The English scholar Richard Bentley (1662-1742) did all of those things.
Against that background the modern division of humanistic learning into separate disciplines looks like a sleight of hand. Indeed, no sooner did humanistic disciplines emerge than cries rang out for “interdisciplinary” cooperation among them. That impulse first took institutional form in the United States in 1919. That’s when the American Council of Learned Societies was organized, bringing together scholarly associations in the humanities “and related social sciences.” Today the academic landscape is littered with line-crossing, discipline-melding humanities units such as gender studies, American studies, programs in the history and philosophy of science, and joint Ph.D.'s in anthropology and classics.
Budget cuts and shrinking enrollments will accelerate the blending of disciplines, as humanistic learning shifts its shape once again. There will be much pain, and diminishing support will force change. At many colleges and universities, adjunct and assistant professors will be fired, with tenured faculty members pushed into multidisciplinary units. Historians, art historians, classicists, and even literary scholars may find themselves sharing the same department.
As the process continues, disciplinary borders may fade while numbers of professors decline. Broader-gauged if smaller faculties will train fewer graduate students in total but more broadly, and scholars will more often work outside of colleges and universities. Then humanistic erudition may, once again, range over wider worlds of learning. If so, its practitioners will have to broaden the narrowly focused, jargon-ridden research common in the humanities during the past half-century—and so often baffling to ordinary readers.
Whatever precise form change takes, professors and their students are likely to discover that the humanities amount to more than a set of isolated disciplines, each marooned on its own island. Ordinary readers may find learned research in art, history, and literature routinely written in language accessible to them, even published in general-interest periodicals, as it usually was before 1850. Even politicians may find the value of erudition comprehensible.
Today’s many humanities collectively form the latest version of a millennia-long Western tradition of inquiry into language and its products: inquiry, that is, into worlds that human beings have created for themselves and expressed in words. That endeavor will not disappear, even when the present humanities disciplines do.
James Turner is a humanities professor at University of Notre Dame and author of Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2014).