A Philosopher's Blog

The Decline of the Humanities

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2013
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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.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 1, 2013 at 11:43 am

    You need to be a myth buster. Thomas Kuhn busted the myth of the steady progress of the (hard) sciences.

    BOOK – Thomas Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – http://www.amazon.com/Structure-Scientific-Revolutions-50th-Anniversary/dp/0226458121

    We have too much science today that is unhinged from philosophy. Look at the recent dark matter detector, which turned up nothing. Why? Because dark matter is an anomaly in the mathematics of the current theory of gravity…. not because it actually exists. Yet someone spent tons of money looking for something a philosopher of science could have told them didn’t exist.

    New Dark Matter Detector Draws A Blank In First Test Round – http://www.universetoday.com/105943/new-dark-matter-detector-draws-a-blank-in-first-test-round/#ixzz2jPRypr63

    Good philosophy and good science leads to better paradigms as explanations for dark matter. See: The MOND Pages – http://www.astro.umd.edu/~ssm/mond/

    Read Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution and you will see the same sort of mathematical anomalies, in both the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems: http://www.amazon.com/The-Copernican-Revolution-Thomas-Kuhn/dp/1567312179

    Have you ever read Mary Midgley? She put to rest this “death of the humanities” foolishness many years ago.

    BOOK – Mary Midgley – Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (Routledge Classics) – http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Religion-Stranger-Routledge-Classics/dp/0415278333

    BOOK – Mary Midgley – Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning – http://www.amazon.com/Science-Salvation-Modern-Myth-Meaning/dp/0415107733/

    • magus71 said, on November 2, 2013 at 7:18 am

      I agree with your premise that several scientific theories have a big problem when confronted with basic philisophical arguments. One problem that seems rampant today is people refusing to acknowledge the limits of knowledge. This refusal manifests itself as a smoothing over gaps in scientific knowledge, just enough so thoe without philisophical minds will acept theories that clearly have problems.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm

        They need to reread Locke: though we want the light of the sun, our knowledge is but a candle in the dark.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm

        “I agree with your premise that several scientific theories have a big problem when confronted with basic philisophical arguments.”

        Scientific theories are usually quite modest. Can you give an example of what you mean?

        • magus71 said, on November 4, 2013 at 12:03 pm

          Evolution (Darwinism) and man-made climate change theory at not at all modest.

          I laugh all the time when I hear real scientists telling people on the Discovery Channel *why* certain animals “evolved” with certain features. “Giraffes have long necks so they can reach higher food”, for example. What about all the millions of other animals that *don’t* have long necks? What it ends up being is that any trait can have an imaginary reason created for it. For every animal with a trait in a certain environment, there are 100 without it. All we can say is that giraffes have long necks, not how they got that way.

          Why do we like music?

          The second, global warming, jumps to conclusions without seriously considering the multitude of inputs that can effect climate change. We don’t understand it, so let’s admit that and keep studying it. It’s much like the diet/exercise debate. no one really understand yet what makes us healthy or fat. Very low carb is not the complete answer either, I believe, though it can help people who have broken their endocrine system.

          Again, I’m a skeptic. The more I learn, the more I realize we have very shallow understandings of many things we consider decided. The only real measure of truth is empirical observation: The plane flies after the engineers make it, or it doesn’t.

          • magus71 said, on November 6, 2013 at 7:22 am

            Mush of this is more properly termed dogma, as opposed to theory.

          • T. J. Babson said, on November 6, 2013 at 8:41 am

            I wonder if you are objecting to the theory itself or to people misrepresenting the theory. I think you will find that the scientists themselves are much more aware of the limitations of their knowledge than the accounts in the press would indicate.

            • T. J. Babson said, on November 6, 2013 at 8:44 am

              But its not like the press often interviews real scientists. I used to wonder why real soldiers were never interviewed, either. Usually it was some person who was much higher up the food chain and had no idea of what he or she was talking about.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm

              Some scientists are, some are not. For example, I co-authored a paper with a physics professor and he is well aware of the limits of science. But, I have witnessed science dogmatism that would rival the dogmatism of religious fundamentalists at meetings.

            • magus71 said, on November 6, 2013 at 12:31 pm

              I have read that many of them, behind closed doors, admit that there are significant problems with the theory itself. But they have no theory to replace it and cannot admit openly that there are serious problems for fear of people losing faith in science.

            • magus71 said, on November 6, 2013 at 12:33 pm


              A misinterpretation of the theory begins when scientists stop calling it a theory and insist that it is a fact, when it is not a fact.

            • WTP said, on November 6, 2013 at 1:07 pm

              That evolution, via natural selection, happens is a fact. There have been experiments and observations in nature with organisms that have short life cycles where different species have evolved to the degree that they no longer share significant chromosomal qualities to enable them to produce viable offspring when brought back together with their “sister” species. The problem rests with the idea/dogma that this is the only explanation for the diversity of life and that all such explanations answer all the open questions. It’s been a while but I believe this was discussed in a Stephen J. Gould book I read many years ago…either that or Michael Crichton…can’t recall which.

            • T. J. Babson said, on November 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm

              “The problem rests with the idea/dogma that this is the only explanation for the diversity of life and that all such explanations answer all the open questions.”

              I agree with this. But are scientists the ones mainly propagating the dogma? Perhaps they are simply not speaking out against the dogma.

            • magus71 said, on November 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm

              “There have been experiments and observations in nature with organisms that have short life cycles where different species have evolved to the degree that they no longer share significant chromosomal qualities to enable them to produce viable offspring when brought back together with their “sister” species.”

              Sounds like intelligent design to me. The intentional manipulation of circumstances to make something happen.

            • magus71 said, on November 6, 2013 at 2:02 pm

              We would consider humans “highly evolved.” But parrots live longer and do not have the capability nor propensity to wipe out huge swaths of their own species, as do humans. Which is more highly evolved?

              WTP once stated that evolution is whatever works, whatever makes a speicies more viable. But “works” and “viable” are subject to many different forms and ideas. The is really no scientific measurement of viability because it is difficult to show that traits have any real effect at all on “viability”. A leopard’s spots, for instance. Essentially, the idea comes down to an infinite amound of possible mutations with an infinite amount of possibilities of why the mutation could be helpful. A leopard has spots, to help it blend. Yet a lion does not, and is equally successful; both have claws, teeth, speed, etc.

            • WTP said, on November 6, 2013 at 2:03 pm

              Sounds like intelligent design to me. Well, yes. It’s also called animal husbandry when done over many generations with larger species.

              Raises an interesting philosophical question no “philosophers” like Mike would be willing to spend the time on as such “philosophers” are too damn busy shilling for the D’s… Where’s the line between “intelligent design” and meta-design and/or self-replicating design?

            • WTP said, on November 6, 2013 at 2:09 pm

              Yes, there has to be some reason species mutate in such a way to take advantage of the environment. Completely random mutations over many millions/billions of years in many kurgols (ok, i exaggerate) of individuals of species does not provide a satisfactory answer (haven’t time for the explanation now and going off knowledge gleaned from a couple decades ago). However if you find our original discussion on the matter from which you quote me, I think I mentioned something about it back then…I believe TJ had chimed in, or originally raised, the point.

  2. unsolicitedtidbits said, on November 1, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    Oh how I try, but it feels like a Sisyphean task. I think those businesses who hire grads from the humanities could also add to the conversation.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 1, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      True-it would be helpful to have the folks who do the hiring come out in support of the humanities.

  3. TJB said, on November 2, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    If humanities programs were producing graduates who could think critically and write clearly I think they would find a lot of supportive employers. But, are humanities programs delivering the goods? Do students learn to think or are they merely indoctrinated? Do they learn to prefer good writing over bad, or do they learn to prefer the bad?

  4. TJB said, on November 2, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    Something else STEM has going for it is rigor. One studies a theory because it is successful, not because it was created by a member of an underrepresented group. Merit is al that matters. STEM disciplines are a lot like sports in this respect.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 3, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      So does philosophy-take a look at symbolic logic and proper philosophical methodology.

      Actually, since I get to see STEM in academics from the inside, I can attest to the fact that theories do get support for such things as political reasons, fads and so on. After all, STEM faculty are just as human as non STEM faculty.

      Check out the history of the sciences-theories become ideological commitments and the enforcers of the status quo fight hard against attempts to bring in new theories. I’m most familiar with the fall of Aristotle’s science in the modern era, but the same thing is happening now.

      Fortunately, the methods of logic and critical reasoning (of which a subset is math and another of which is the scientific method) can be employed to sort matters out. If, of course, they are properly used.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 3, 2013 at 10:08 pm

        “Fortunately, the methods of logic and critical reasoning (of which a subset is math and another of which is the scientific method) can be employed to sort matters out.”

        If math and science are just subsets of philosophy maybe philosophy should redefine itself as a STEM discipline and start raking in the big bucks…

      • WTP said, on November 4, 2013 at 10:11 am

        Fortunately, the methods of logic and critical reasoning (of which a subset is math and another of which is the scientific method) can be employed to sort matters out.
        Resting on the laurels of philosophers of the past.

        If, of course, they are properly used.
        And by “properly used”, Mike means that they must come to the conclusions that modern philosophers expect.

        TJ, do you see a pattern here similar to religion?

  5. WTP said, on November 5, 2013 at 10:01 am

    On this subject, again I give you this from Democrats At Work:

    And more from the “education” front. UGA students don’t want no steenking success. How much more f’d up can lib arts studies get?


    GA Tech should us this as a recruiting poster.

    • T. J. Babson said, on November 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      From WTP’s link. Mike, which way do you lean?

      “Minorities” are thought of by progressives as perpetually in need of government assistance in order to “succeed” in a “free market” economy. However, if not everyone succeeds equally, then the entire economy is “unjust” and is in need of government redistribution and equalization of outcomes.

      On the other hand, individualists believe that there are no “minorities,” just individual human beings; although there is irrational and unjust discrimination along racial and ethnic lines in backwards societies. Individualists believe that success — which comes from talent, luck, hard work and perseverance — is not owed to anyone; but should be rewarded and held aloft for others to pursue.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm

        That is a false dilemma. Plus, the positions are mostly straw-or at least very simplified.

      • WTP said, on November 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        C’mon TJ, you can’t ask Mike those kinds of questions. He’s just gonna weasel with some nonsense like false dilemma. As if it’s a real dilemma and not a question as to which side he might feel more favorably toward.

    • T. J. Babson said, on November 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      A must read from David Horowitz:

      Individual freedom and ordered liberty made possible by the imposition of limits on government is the idea that unites conservatives and Republicans, and should be their rallying cry. The idea is fundamentally opposed to the “equality” that is the goal of progressives and Democrats. Progressive equality — that is, racial, gender, and class equality, or equality by collectives — is not what the Founders fought for and not what the constitutional framework guarantees. There are no ethnicities or genders identified in the Bill of Rights; the words “male” and “female,” “black” and “white,” do not appear in the Constitution. There are only individuals who are, in the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed equal in the eyes of their Creator and endowed with unalienable rights that government cannot take away.

      The equality enshrined in the Declaration is incompatible with the equality that progressives support. The equality in the Declaration is not an equality of abilities or deserts. It is an equality of importance in the eyes of Nature’s God, and therefore in the eyes of the law — equality not as men and women or whites and blacks but as individuals, and individuals alone.

      The equality proposed by progressives and Democrats is a declaration of war on individual freedom, and therefore on the American constitutional framework. The steady erosion of that freedom is the consequence of progressives’ political successes. This is the war that divides Left and Right. Conservatives must recognize that it is a war, and prosecute it as a war to defend individual freedom. That should be the unifying idea of the conservative cause.


  6. magus71 said, on November 8, 2013 at 8:23 am

    I like this:

    “Science” is perhaps the most abused word in the English language.”

    By using the word science, people, even some scientists, think they automatically win.


    • WTP said, on November 8, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Was thinking the same thing in regard to Nal’s comments in regard to ” science-based preventative health coverage” on the (yet again) contraception thread, I was thinking how cute it is when philosophers speak of and use science in their arguments. Kinda like when a 6 year old takes daddy’s car keys and drives to the hardware store. Cute but at the same time scary as hell.

    • T. J. Babson said, on November 8, 2013 at 10:03 am

      I think the problem occurs when people say “science” dictates a certain course of action (like forcing employers to subsidize the recreational sex of their employees).

      Science is our best method of determining the reliability of certain claims. How we respond to the truths science uncovers is beyond the realm of science.

      • magus71 said, on November 8, 2013 at 10:25 am

        My issue is when science is appealed to as some higher echelon of reality, as if the people involved in it are not vulnerable to the same human weaknesses as those involved in religion, philosophy, sports commentary, whine tasting, or politics.

        It has always bothered me immensely that I am required to divorce my religion from science. That it seems beyond the comprehension of some, that if there is God, he may just have created the laws of the universe, which science purportedly is supposed to try to figure out. I’ve always had an intense interest in science, and for some reason, God, too. How any real scientist can have an interest in science, but not in the roots of existence is beyond me.

        I used to have debates with a guy who worked for DIA during my first deployment. He said he was not an atheist, but did not like Christianity. During our debates, I invariably had to defend the personal behavior of people who said they were Christians because this was always at the roots of his argument. And he would ask: “What about science?” My response: “What about it?” It astounded me, he was such an intelligent guy. But his argument against God was, what about science.

        The human heart is beyond the realm of science.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 9, 2013 at 6:01 pm

        Right. Science itself does not dictate. Scientific findings combined with values and used in arguments can lead to a conclusion. But those values are open to debate. So are the findings.

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