The crisis in arts and humanities: Rhetoric or reality?
For those steeped in the humanities, the publication in The New Yorker magazine of Nathan Heller’s article “The End of the English Major” at the beginning of March seemed an update of TS Eliot’s aphorism, “April is the cruellest month”.
As Heller warms to his theme that the humanities are “in crisis”, he quotes James Shapiro, the author of several bestselling books on Shakespeare, including The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015). The Columbia University English professor explains why he believes the decline in the number of humanities students is irreversible. Holding a scuffed iPhone, Shapiro tells Heller: “Technology in the last 20 years has changed all of us.”
While Shapiro hasn’t lost interest in fiction, the popular professor who used to read five novels a month now barely gets through one because of the time spent reading hundreds of websites and listening to podcasts. The idea of assigning Middlemarch, George Eliot’s eight-volume novel about provincial life in England (1871-72), Heller avers, following Shapiro, would be “like trying to land a 747 on a small rural strip”.
Heller supports his argument with statistics from across the country. At Ohio State University (Columbus), between 2012 and 2020, the number of humanities major graduates dropped by 46%. At Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts) they fell by 50%, while at the State University of New York (Albany) the decline was almost 75%.
Over the same period, even at the prototypical liberal arts college, Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, New York), the numbers of humanities graduates fell by about 50%. At Arizona State University (ASU, Tempe), he says, history majors dropped by 50% in the three years following 2014. In 2012, almost 20% of Harvard’s freshman class planned to study the humanities; 10 years later this figure had dropped by 35%, meaning only 7% of Harvard’s first-year students intended to study the humanities. In the 1970s, that figure was 30%.
In an email to Heller that Jeffrey J Cohen, dean of humanities and professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, ASU, released to University World News, Cohen shows that Heller errs by saying that the number of history majors at ASU is 200. He did not include, Cohen says, the 677 history students studying through the ASU’s large digital presence. ASU’s English enrolment of 2,178 is 150 higher than last year. The total number, 4,204 humanities students studying at ASU, is an increase of 200 over last year.
What’s really going on?
On 29 March, Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute published a report on the humanities in the Russell Group of 24 leading research universities (including Oxbridge, University College London, University of Nottingham and the London School of Economics) written by a team of seven vice-presidents, deans and heads of departments led by Marion Thain, executive dean of the faculty of arts and humanities and professor of culture and technology at King’s College London.
The Humanities in the UK Today: What’s Going On? strikes a very different note to Heller and the many articles published over the last few years about the humanities in the United States. The two most obvious differences are the absence of the word “crisis” and enrolment statistics.*
“I like the way the report redirected the conversation away from ‘crisis’ and away from number crunching student enrolment that can be misleading, and, instead, looked at the issue within the UK context, showing a kind of steadiness of the humanities,” says Cohen. “One of the things I heard in the wake of The New Yorker article is that this ‘crisis in the humanities’ rhetoric is a very American way of talking about what’s going on with the importance of the humanities.”
According to Susan Fitzmaurice, one of the report’s co-authors, the report addresses “a perceived ‘crisis’ in the humanities in both the US and the UK. And if one were simply to listen to government rhetoric, particularly around the skill-based agenda, which prioritises STEM, that would seem to completely ignore the value and skills imparted by arts and humanities subjects”.
Further, says Fitzmaurice, who is vice-president and head of the faculty of arts and humanities and professor of English at the University of Sheffield, the report addresses “that gap in understanding that threatens to engulf the public debate”.
To show the robustness of the humanities in Britain, Thain’s team doesn’t count “bums in seats”, to use the argot of American registrars. Rather, the team points to the UK’s position in the international league tables. Britain counts for just under 1% of the world’s population. Yet, 9.9% of downloaded academic papers, 10.5% of global citations and 13.4% of “highly cited articles” are written by researchers in the UK. In 2020, compared to the global average, arts and humanities research activity was 49% higher.
On the strength of these numbers and the fact that in 2020, 19 UK universities are in the Times Higher Education rankings’ top 100 for arts and humanities (including four in the top 10), Thain writes, “This is a globally leading sector rather than a sector in crisis, whether we look at outputs (journal articles, books and other types of publication) or impacts (socially, economically, globally and locally).”
As I discussed with both Cohen and Paula Krebs, executive director of the (US) Modern Language Association, Heller’s statistics ignore the historical changes that have occurred in English studies over the past four decades.
When I was in university in the US in the late 1970s, for example, although some universities and colleges had separate departments for women’s studies and black studies, in the main, students wanting to study these fields did so within either English or history departments. Over the past decades, in almost every college and university these disciplines and others have been established as separate departments.
Simple maths says that, as Cohen put it, “when [the] big pie was divided and the pieces moved to their own locations”, the percent of students enrolled in the department called ‘English’ would inevitably be lower than it was previously. This statistical reality is exacerbated by the increase in the number of college and university students from 10 million to 20 million since 1980, and the growth of the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and business fields. In 1980, for example, computer science hardly existed.
The Humanities in the UK Today avoids this error by placing trendlines in a broader context than most American commentators on higher education. Hence, Thain writes that “the huge growth in recent years in international students has predominantly been outside the humanities, meaning the humanities take a smaller part of the overall student body”.
Further, the report takes into account the reconfiguration of humanities courses over the past decades that has resulted in “traditional humanities courses represent[ing] a smaller percentage of this expanded field”.
As did Cohen and Krebs, Thain and her co-authors present a picture of the humanities that does not focus on traditional programme categories such as classics, English or early modern history.
Rather, the Russell Group universities, which have seen an increase in the number of humanities majors, have reconfigured many humanities courses and programmes, albeit, Thain admits, with “painful changes to staffing levels and the size and structure of departments”.
Among the reconfigured humanities offerings discussed in The Humanities in the UK Today are the ‘Ruskin Modules’ developed at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU, Cambridge). 25% of the students in the faculty of science and engineering, for example, are enrolled in modules taught by professors from the faculty of arts, humanities and social science; the modules focus on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
The description of the modules on the “Humanities and education” page of ARU’s website explains that the modules are designed to teach “how history has shaped modern times; explore politics, social issues and public services or tackle philosophical questions that have captivated humanity for millennia”, and demonstrates the sort of thinking also at the heart of ASU’s reconfigured humanities offerings.
The word “tackle”, which would not have appeared in a university brochure even a decade ago, jumped out at me because of what Cohen told me about attracting today’s students.
“We have to meet them where they are,” Cohen says. “Students have been taught, or have learned, that what they want to study is conveyed by the label. It’s something we are working hard on, developing degrees that pull together everything we’re doing in the humanities, but give them a recognisable name.
“This fall we will debut a programme called ‘Culture, technology and environment’ in which ‘culture’ is the study of another language and ‘technology’ focuses on technology and ethics.
“We already have a certificate in environmental humanities that hits on three things our students come here wanting to think about: cultural change and social justice, technology in relation to algorithms, sociality, democracy and climate change.”
Cohen is looking forward to launching the “Sports, society and the human experience” programme in a year or so.
ASU’s strategy appears to be working. For, added to the courses taken by English majors, such programmes and electives taken in English by non-English majors has resulted, Cohen told me, in an increase in the number of credit hours (the measure of all students in English courses) from 35,189 in Spring 2021, to 36,812 in Spring 2022, to 39,027. This is an increase of 6% this year alone. Fall 2023 enrolment in the humanities is up by 12% over this time last year.
Permission to study the humanities
For her part, Krebs drew my attention to the Cornerstone Programme at Purdue University established in 2020. “It is a certificate programme in the humanities for all technology majors. It is a kind of ‘great book’ sequence, in which students take 15 credits, so roughly five courses, in the humanities, in what they call ‘transformative texts’. Several universities are picking up on this Cornerstone model.”
Further, she says, the fastest growing major at the University of Arizona (not ASU) is applied humanities, in which humanities courses are attached to the schools of design, architecture, business and public health. “These are career-focused schools, so by doing this, the students are giving themselves permission to study the humanities.”
The Humanities in the UK Today notes that half of the universities in the Russell Group already have interdisciplinary humanities programmes that span what in 1959 C P Snow famously referred to as the “two cultures” (what we now call STEM and the humanities) which did not understand each other.
Despite the dip in enrolment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic these programmes are growing. Post-1992 universities, both Warwick and Newcastle, have established schools in which humanities are a major part of their interdisciplinary nature. Newcastle’s ‘School X’, it is worth noting, incidentally, seems exactly the sort of name that would intrigue students.
After examining these programmes, promotional materials, websites and online prospectuses, writes Thain, the programmes “allow students to prepare for the increasingly complex and uncertain world”.
Her team’s examination of the core modules indicated that the liberal arts programmes in them are “outward-looking and connected to external organisations and local areas as students are set on local and global challenges”. These programmes do not “distinguish between arts and sciences … both are valid, relevant for the work we will all have to do as global citizens”.
The myths about jobs
As Heller notes, and as both Cohen and Krebs bring up at some point, discussion about “Whither the humanities?” turns to two issues: jobs and salaries, and whether the humanities are socially useful.
In neither the US, nor the UK, is it true that humanities students earn less than most of their peers who graduate from STEM programmes. As Krebs notes, survey after survey shows humanities majors get jobs. In one survey, she says, 51% of biology majors are underemployed compared to 45% of English majors.
Thain does not present employability statistics. Instead, she points to a 2020 report from the British Academy, titled Qualified for the Future, that “gives strong evidence of considerable flexibility in career options for AHSS (Arts, Humanities, and Social Science) graduates and of a strong correlation between the skills of AHSS graduates and the key skills employers value. This gives non-STEM graduates long-term resilience within the workforce”.
Indeed, eight of the 10 fastest growing sectors employ more AHSS graduates than graduates of other disciplines.
One employer at a large technology corporation told Thain’s team, “The way I view it is, if you’re going into more STEM-based, or more business-focused degrees, you still need a foundation in the humanities; you need to have an understanding of language and communication and philosophy in order to do those other things.”
Krebs made the same point when she told me that when she was dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University (Massachusetts) one of her responsibilities was overseeing the annual job fair. Cisco Systems, a large technology company, would come to job fairs and speak only to students who studied network engineering.
At one point, Krebs asked the Cisco representative, “What are the job skills you’re looking for?” He answered, “I’m looking for people who can look at a problem and ask questions, ask iterative questions, until you figure out exactly what the problem is. And then they have to be able to try different solutions until you get the solution.”
She then pointed out that this was not a technical skill, but a research skill and a communication skill, and that art majors can do that. By limiting himself to network manager majors, she says, he was missing all these students with the skills he wanted.
Likewise, Thain underlines that the importance of a specific degree is a “red herring”. A surprisingly small percentage of employers, 14%, require a specific degree subject. Much more important for prospective employers is the applicant’s level of education, critical thinking, problem-solving, sophisticated linguistic and textual information handling and communication skills, as well as a demonstrated ability to work in teams.
Indeed, because computer programmes and high-tech technology change so quickly, “employers often prefer to supply this themselves through in-house training programs”.
What, then, is the social utility of a humanities degree?
In the United States, Republican lawmakers routinely disparage the humanities for a number of reasons. Both black studies (and, therefore, critical race theory) and women’s studies are part of the humanities. Further, they believe that humanities programmes distract students from enrolling in STEM courses, that at the public universities they are a waste of taxpayers’ money, and at private universities they are a waste of students’ money.
The many Republican lawmakers who have derided humanities’ majors as being fit only to be baristas saddled by huge student loans obviously have not spoken with Cohen. Thanks to a special partnership with Starbucks, which funds students to study online at ASU, the university has graduated 10,000 Starbucks employees.
In the UK in 2002 Charles Clarke, who was secretary of state for education and skills in Tony Blair’s Labour government, rejected the idea of “education for its own sake”, poured scorn on “the mediaeval concept of the university as a community of scholars seeking truth” and asked rhetorically why the state should be funding such an enterprise.
Although Boris Johnson, who was ousted as prime minister last year, was never shy about displaying the Latin and history he learned studying classics at Oxford, a succession of Tory education ministers since 2010 have agreed with Clarke’s view.
Rather than rehearse this history, Thain’s group quotes the criticism Dr Christopher Daley and Dr Matthew Smith (both of Royal Holloway, University of London) made in their blog posting of 24 May 2022 vis-à-vis the almost complete absence of the humanities in the then recently announced UK Research and Development agenda.
After summarising the doctors’ argument that to be truly effective, the agenda must include “the arts and humanities disciplines as a transformative part of our response to the great challenges of our times”, Thain goes on to parse more recent government statements such as the ‘Research and Development Roadmap’.
The Humanities in the UK Today asserts that the humanities are important because they “can deliver in the areas set out there [ie, in the ‘Roadmap’]: for example, with respect to working at ‘the intersection of knowledge and societal need’ and bringing forward ‘creative, innovative and radical ideas’”.
As The Humanities in the UK Today shows, UK universities are well advanced in what might be thought of as applied humanities.
At the University of Liverpool, for example, English professor Josie Billington leads the programme LivCare, which is a digital resource that includes “examples of best practice in inclusive arts-in-mental-health provision to inform policy, widen provision and foster cross-sectorial co-operation”.
At Queen Mary University of London, Professor Paul Heritage, who teaches in the school of English and drama, leads a programme called “Safeguarding indigenous communities through engagement and dissemination of cultural heritage”.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people turned to the humanities in unprecedented numbers to re-evaluate priorities and to deal with what, for many, was an ‘existential’ crisis. Humanities professors and others who work in the area “helped society make sense of and narrate the experience of the pandemic (and to memorialise the losses that many have experienced) and explained the benefit of vaccination and, crucially, began to shape the process of recovery,” the report notes.
One project the report highlights is led by Dr Nana Sato-Rossberg, who teaches at the school of languages, culture and linguistics at SOAS, University of London. The project seeks “to understand variations in cultural translation and interpretation of COVID-19 risks among London’s migrant communities”. Understanding the origins of such variations is important in developing strategies to deploy resources effectively in the future.
Complex philosophical ideas such as phenomenology – the study of how we perceive and understand phenomena, and how these meanings define our subjective experience – are being used at Essex University’s Essex Autonomy Project that is inquiring into the ideal of autonomy (self-determination) in social, psychiatric and elder care settings. The project’s lead researcher, Professor Wayne Martin, uses phenomenology “to understand how [an] individual’s decision-making capacity can best be assessed and supported”.
Humanities researchers in Britain have also been active in examining the philosophical and social implications of artificial intelligence (AI). The AI Narratives project at Cambridge uses fictional narratives to show the values encoded in AI narratives and the interests they promote. The project also examines the impact of these narratives/values on the public’s imagination and public acceptance of them.
“The project had considerable influence on policy makers and government, for example, through engagement with the AI Council,” says the report.
While, as noted in this publication on 13 August 2022, humanities programmes at post-1992 universities have been under strain, with several closing or amalgamating programmes, this report on “What’s going on” with the humanities at the Russell Group is an important marker.
It serves to distinguish the discussion of the humanities in Britain’s elite universities from the discussion in their peer universities in the United States which, as Heller’s article shows, are buffeted by the rhetorical winds of crisis. Further, the report provides a street-level view of what humanities departments, professors and students bring to the high table.
* A Google search under ‘Humanities in crisis United States’ produces millions of hits, including US government reports, articles in the Atlantic Monthly, Washington Post, The New York Times, Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education and hundreds of other journals, magazines and newspapers, as well as think-tank reports.