The Decline of the Humanities
One of the current narratives is that the humanities are in danger at American universities. Some schools are cutting funding for the humanities while others are actually eliminating majors and departments. At my own university, the college of arts and sciences was split apart with the humanities and soft sciences in one new college and the now exalted STEM programs in another. Not surprisingly, I was called upon (at a moment’s notice) to defend the continued existence of the philosophy and religion unit I head up. Fortunately, I could point to the fact that our classes regularly overload with students and the fact that our majors have been very successful.
While this narrative is certainly worrisome to faculty in the humanities, this is actually not a new narrative. For example, while about 7% of majors are in the humanities, this has been the case since the 1980s. As another example, humanities programs have been subject to cuts for decades. That said, there is clearly a strong current trend towards supporting STEM and cutting the humanities.
As might be suspected, the push to build up the STEM programs has contributed to the decline of funding for humanities programs. Universities and colleges have to allocate their funds and if more funds are allocated to STEM, this leaves less for other programs. There is also the fact that there is much more outside funding (such as from the federal government) for STEM programs. As such, STEM programs can find themselves getting a “double shot” of increased funding from the university and support from outside while humanities programs face reduced support from within the institutions and little or nothing from outside.
Those who argue for STEM over the humanities would make the case that STEM programs should receive more funding. If more students enroll in STEM than in the humanities, then it would clearly be fair that these programs receive more funding. If humanities programs want more funding, then they would need to take steps to improve their numbers.
There is also the argument based on the claim that funding STEM provides a greater return for the money in terms of job creation, educating job fillers and generating research that can be monetized. That is, STEM provides a bigger financial and practical payoff than the humanities. This would, clearly, serve to justify greater funding for STEM. Assuming, of course, that funding should be determined primarily in terms of financial and practical values defined in this manner. As such, if humanities programs are going to earn increased funding, they would need to show that they can generate value of a sort that would warrant their increased funding. This could be done by showing that the humanities have such practical and financial value or, alternatively, arguing that the humanities generate value of a different sort that is still worthy of funding.
Those in the humanities not only need to convince those who redistribute the money, they also need to convince students that the humanities are valuable. This need not require convincing students to major in the humanities—getting students to accept the value of the humanities to the degree that they will willingly enroll in such classes and support the programs that offer them.
It has long been a challenge to get students to accept the value of the humanities. When I was an undergraduate almost three decades ago most students looked down on the humanities and this has not changed. Now that I am a professor, honestly compels me to admit that most students sign up for my classes because they have to knock out some sort of requirement. I do manage to win some of these students over by showing them the value of philosophy, but many remain indifferent at best.
While it is a tradition to claim that things are worse now than they were when I was a youngster, this is actually the case. Recently, there has been a conceptual shift in regards to education: now the majority of students regard the main function of college as job preparation or as vocational training. That is, students predominantly see college as a machine that will make them into job fillers for the job creators.
Because of the nature of our economic system, most students do have to worry about competing in a very difficult job market and surviving in a system that is most unkind. As such, it is not unwise of students to take this very practical approach to education.
While it is something of a stereotype, parents do often worry that their children will major in the humanities and it is not uncommon for students to pressure their kids to major in something “useful.” When I was a student, people I knew said just that. Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes. While some are worried that their children will be corrupted, the main concerns are the same as that expressed by students: the worry that majoring in the humanities is a dead end and that the humanities requirements are delaying graduation and wasting their money.
Those of us in the humanities have two main options here. One is to make the case that the humanities actually do provide the skills needed to make it in the world of the job creators. While some regard philosophy as useless, an excellent case can be made that classes in philosophy can be very helpful in getting ready for employment. To use the most obvious example, philosophy is the best choice for those who are considering a career in law. This approach runs the risk of devaluing the humanities and just making them yet another form of job training.
The second is the usual argument from the humanities, which is based on the idea there is more to life than being a job filler for the job creators. The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question. This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.
Unfortunately, humanities faculty often fail to convince students, parents and those who control the money that the humanities are valuable. Sometimes the failure is on the part of the audience, but often it is on the part of the faculty. As such, those of us in the humanities need to up our game or watch the shadow over the humanities grow.