The Future of the Humanities

On June 6, Harvard University released a long-awaited report on the state of the humanities.  A central part of the report, "Mapping the Future," is a study of the "trends" in humanities education and "stakes" for faculty, students, and society in general.

What with plummeting enrollments and declining interest in the humanities, those who do not reside within the halls of academe might suppose that the Harvard report would focus on the real problems: the increased radicalization of the humanities; the splintering of the humanities into discrete disciplines such as women's studies, men's studies, gay studies, Latino studies, and the like; and the antagonism of many academics toward the capitalist society that supports them.  One would expect some discussion of the jargon-ridden triviality of so much "research" in the humanities -- in other words, an acknowledgement that the problem lies with the professors themselves, and not with a tight job market or mere "perceptions" of leftism on the part of the public.

That's what one might expect, but it's not what one gets.  The humanities, we are told, are "more relevant than ever."  As one contributor to the report put it, "[w]e don't have a crisis here. We have a tremendous opportunity."

In a revealing phrase, those who question the value of the humanities as now taught are said to present "hostile arguments."  In reality, those "hostile" arguments might be just what the academic humanists need to save their profession.  But that's not the way the report sees it.  It sees these "hostile arguments" as having less to do with the behavior of academic humanists and more to do with a lack of imagination on the part of the public.  In other words, ordinary folks are just not as smart as Harvard faculty, so what right have they to judge?

The report's "action points" include focusing on recruiting freshmen, adding new technology, adding to exhibition spaces for the arts, and funding new faculty positions.  Oddly, none of the action points address what many would see as the real problem with the humanities, not just at Harvard but throughout much of academe: the narrow ideological focus of so many faculty in the fields of literature and language, history, philosophy, religious studies, art, and music.   

The Harvard report focused inordinately on the issue of whether the humanities are relevant in an age when students are seeking marketable degrees.  Certainly, in the short term at least, a degree in engineering or computer science offers students a better return on their education investment than one in English, history, or philosophy.  It should go without saying that those who major in the humanities earn lower starting salaries than those studying more "practical" subjects.  There's not much of a market out there for newly minted philosophers and poets, unless one wishes to teach or to pursue a graduate degree.

Yet the Harvard report expends a great deal of effort arguing the opposite: that degrees in the humanities are "useful" in the "real world."

That it is possible to graduate with a humanities degree and go on to a successful career in business or government should be obvious, but it should also be obvious that humanities majors are starting out at a disadvantage.  Not only are they less likely to be hired, but they lack the specialized training of a major in finance, engineering, or science.  And so their starting salaries, if they are lucky enough to land a desirable position, will be lower than those of others.

Indeed, the humanities curriculum, as now composed, suggests a certain disdain for the world of practical affairs.  Taking a degree in the humanities is like pinning a scarlet "H" on one's chest.  It announces to the world that one has little interest in the money-grubbing affairs of business or even in the practical matters of governance.  One would rather reflect on Rawlsian conceptions of social justice or the multicultural future of Western society.  As Sheldon Pollack, panelist at Harvard's symposium on "The Humanities and the Future of the University" put it, one would rather spend one's time raising problems than solving them.  That's the reason, Professor Pollack insisted, that "humanists are typically pushed right to the margins."

Maybe, as things now stand, they should be.  Most employers are not eager to employ twenty-somethings with no experience of the real world and whose only qualification is the ability to cause problems.  In the past, the humanities focused on something other than questioning authority -- they focused on how society worked and not on how it failed to work.  In this respect, studying the humanities was a useful preparation for adult responsibilities.

As for marketability, students have always known that degrees in English or history are less lucrative than those in finance or engineering, yet in the past, large numbers of students -- 14% of them in 1966 -- chose to major in the humanities.  Today, that is a mere 7%.  While practical considerations play a part, the real problem is what has happened in the humanities classroom.

The study of the humanities is, by and large, no longer an exciting gateway to the truth.  Instead, it has become cynical, antagonistic, and perverse.  Instead of focusing on the wisdom and the great minds of the past, the humanities now focus on the defeatist, the deviant, and the oppositional aspects of contemporary culture.  Humanists have turned their back on all that is noble, strong, beautiful, and life-affirming.  Once their classroom project of deconstructing Western civilization is complete, professors simply walk away and tell their young charges to forget about leading a productive life.  The purpose of life, they insist, is to sneer at whatever is good and beautiful.  That should be enough for anyone.

With that mindset, humanities majors are well-prepared for a stint as Occupy protestors but not for much else.  Some of them, once they've had enough of laboring as part-time pizza-makers or baristas, will reconsider their situation in life, refocus on productive goals, and make a success of themselves.  But an alarming number of others will spend the rest of their working lives shifting from one dead-end job to another and wondering what went wrong.  What went wrong is that they were taught to be cynical, suspicious, and antagonistic to all that is good about our civilization.  No wonder they play no part in it.

It should be obvious that those who are taught to be hateful and sneering are not going to achieve much in life.  But apparently it is not so obvious to the rocket scientists at Harvard.  The best they can do is to admit that their commitment to "criticism and critique" can "sometimes alienate students."  Actually, those who are smart enough to be alienated from the humanities, as the humanities are now taught, are the lucky ones.  It's those who are taken in who are in trouble.

The central fact that the Harvard report fails to acknowledge is that the problem lies with the radicalization of the humanities that has taken place since the 1960s.  If the humanities were taught in a manner that celebrated the great accomplishments of Western civilization along with those of other civilizations, students would be much better-prepared for life.  Their education in the humanities would leave them confident and hopeful, and these positive attitudes would prepare them to embark on whatever career they might choose.

Unfortunately, this hopeful outlook is not what students are getting from four years of studying the humanities.  All too often, they graduate never having progressed beyond the adolescent conception that life is a conspiracy of the rich versus the poor.  They graduate believing that "[t]he world is too much with us," as Wordsworth had it -- that society spends too much time "getting and spending" -- and determined to have nothing to do with it.  They are convinced that corporate profits are evil, that the environment is under assault by everyone but themselves, that women and minorities are condemned to suffer from the repressive forces of the hegemony (whatever that is), and, as Samantha Power (Obama's choice for U.N. ambassador) put it in 2003, that America is hated by terrorists because America has denied "freedoms to others."  (It's not surprising that Ms. Power is a graduate of Harvard, as is her husband and close Obama advisor Cass Sunstein.)

As one who has spent a lifetime studying the humanities, my advice for students is to take their business elsewhere.  Until humanists can offer an education that truly prepares one for life -- not just with a marketable degree, but with an education of wisdom and hope -- I would consider a degree in accounting or computer science.  Then, after work, one can read all the Shakespeare one likes and not have to be informed that the bard was a racist, an anti-Semite, and gender-challenged to boot.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2013).