THR Web Features   /   November 11, 2013

Humanities, Heal Thyself!

Jay Tolson

A manuscript of the French medieval poem "Roman de la Rose." (Credit:

News that humanities enrollments and majors are declining in American universities is not quite news, but the New York Times recently devoted first-page attention to the trend, complete with some numbers that might be scary to at least part of the professoriate.

While 45 percent of Stanford University's faculty are in the humanities, for instance, only 15 percent of its undergraduates sign up as majors in their fields. Sure, that's Stanford, where the sirens of nearby Silicon Valley beckon strongly to graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees.  But Harvard College has seen a 20 percent drop in humanities majors in the last decade. And across the nation the percentage has fallen  from 14 percent  in 1970 to 7 percent today.

A manuscript of the French medieval poem "Roman de la Rose." (Credit:

Explanations for this decline, in the Times and elsewhere,  tend to run to economics and the utilitarian advantages of STEM and other more vocationally oriented degrees.  Responding to such realities, a study published last spring by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences lamented the widespread drop in funding for the humanities in comparison to what the hard sciences receive.

Yet that same report—as we noted in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review—seemed unable to make the case for the humanities except in what seemed the most apologetic of instrumentalist terms, as though the greatest value of prolonged engagement with the best that has been thought and felt is to enable "citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process" or "to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures."  All true, of course.  But that's it?

While the study was long on skills conferred by humanistic study, it was almost silent on the deficiencies in so many contemporary courses in the area, notably their lack of real engagement with moral, ethical, and other ultimate concerns (truth, beauty, the common good) that should lie at the heart of humane studies.  While the study was a step in the right direction, we observed, fails to acknowledge the many problems within the humanities and social sciences themselves—the fragmentation of fields and subfields leading to a lack of coherence, the often-frivolous nature of what is studied, the absence of judgment about what constitutes serious work, the openly ideological character of significant strands of work in these fields, and so on.

An excellent analysis of some of these deficiencies appears in the November issue of The New Criterion.  Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University,  sees in the teaching of humanities a fatal turning away from content, from the primary sources themselves, toward a preoccupation with the "expressive" and "creative" force of the interpreters.  Beginning some 30 years ago in response to the clarion calls of forceful academic critics like  Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida,  this new direction in the humanities quickly ran afoul of the "basic truth that genuine creativity belongs only to the fortunate few."  Bauerlein continues:

Finally, apart from meeting political dreams and personal needs, the killing of primary texts—more precisely, canceling the primacy of them—could prosper only if a particular transfer took place. As the professors substituted their own activity for Great Books, the prestige of Hamlet, “Because I could not stop for death,” and Invisible Man couldn’t just go away. It had to fall upon them, the killer interpreters. That was the conviction—that the heritage of Dead White Males would lose its authority and the professors would gain it. The genius of Shakespeare would wane and the braininess of Judith Butler would soar. The transfer empowered them, and apparently they expected everyone but the retrograde elders to agree.

As it turned out, of course, growing numbers of students also disagreed.

But the conspicuous absence of concern with primary content (sometimes relative, sometimes close to absolute) not only weakened the various disciplines within the humanities, Bauerlein continues. It also diminished the various efforts to defend them:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.

All of this need not lead to pessimism about the future of humanistic studies.   If the problem lies largely within those fields,  and is not simply the product of larger economic and societal pressures,  then those who teach the humanities have the power to restore them to their former strength and prestige. The question is whether they will have the wisdom and modesty to try.