The humanities have a PR problem

Editor’s note: The following is a revised version of the story published in the July 9, 2014, issue.

Jean-Manuel Duvivier

In my time as chair of Princeton’s Council of the Humanities, I occasionally have been asked to comment on the so-called “crisis of the humanities.” I confess that the first time I heard the phrase I had no idea what it meant, since so far as I could see — that is, roughly, from Joseph Henry House to 1879 Hall via East Pyne — the humanities were thriving. Eight years later, I remain unconvinced that we face a crisis in the humanities (though there are profound problems in higher education with implications for the humanities). But I now have a much clearer sense of what the crisis is supposed to be, and why it appears to affect the humanities in particular.

We have been talking about a “crisis in the humanities” on and off since the 1930s. In the Princeton Alumni Weekly of April 8, 1938, the president of the Princeton Theological Seminary attributed “the current crisis in the humanities” to the neglect of theology on the part of humanists. Since then, there have been three waves of “crisis.” The first came during the Cold War, especially after Sputnik. The great fear was that the best minds would follow the money from the humanities to the sciences, thus depriving the nation of a vital resource: the cultural literacy and critical reflection that are the special province of the humanities and that were deemed indispensable for a strong democracy. This led directly to the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities, but in the end, the “crisis” was resolved not by deliberate action, but by history. The Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, and the social shake-up of the 1960s gave students reason to wonder about their culture and its values. The humanities were instantly “relevant,” and enrollments soared.

The rhetoric of crisis returned around 1980, though this time the challenge was much more serious. The humanities long had been defined by their focus on a canon of great — or at least, important — books. But the canonical authors were all Western, white, and male. And as the students of the ’60s became the professors of the ’80s, this fact became impossible to ignore. The comforting story that humanists had told themselves about the value of their work — that it elevates the spirit and prepares citizens for democracy by exposing them to the best that has been thought and said — came to sound hollow at best, pernicious at worst. The same period saw the rise of “theory” in the literary humanities: a hodgepodge of abstract, often obscure ideas about language, value, and history, all of which were calculated to undermine the pieties in terms of which humanists had justified their work for centuries. Theory was skeptical about meaning and objective value — hence about the very idea of a “great book.” At its flamboyant worst it was skeptical about the very idea of rational discourse. And this left the humanities in a pickle. It is hard enough to rethink the nature and value of humanistic inquiry when so much has been called into question. It is even harder in an intellectual climate in which the prevailing view is that clear thinking is overrated. This dilemma never was decisively resolved; rather it subsided as humanists shrugged off the wilder claims of theory and returned to the old business of scholarship, focused now on a looser and vastly more inclusive canon.

The latest wave of crisis-talk was sparked not by an intellectual challenge, but by a statistical trend: what appears to be a sharp decrease in interest in the humanities among American undergraduates. In 1968, 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees nationwide were awarded in the humanities; by 2011, the number was 7 percent. That trend looks ominous. But as Benjamin Schmidt *13 of Northeastern University has pointed out, the statistical picture is more complicated. Although the percentage of students majoring in the humanities is down since the ’60s, this appears to reflect not a protracted decline, but a bubble that inflated in the ’60s and burst in the ’70s. For the past 30 years, these numbers have been stable at pre-bubble levels. What’s more, since college attendance has been increasing steadily over this period, the percentage of all 23-year-olds with degrees in the humanities actually has been rising. So far as these national numbers tell us, there is no clear crisis in the humanities.

At Princeton, enrollments in humanities courses have been stable for at least a decade, despite the financial downturn of 2008. In 2004, roughly 22 percent of undergraduate degrees were awarded in the humanities (excluding history, which is classified as a social science at Princeton). In 2013, the number was 19 percent, down slightly but not significantly. Over the same period the number of certificates awarded in the humanities grew dramatically, from 320 in 2004 to 428 in 2013, a period during which new and vibrant certificate programs were established in Values and Public Life; Translation and Intercultural Communication; Gender and Sexuality Studies; and most recently, Humanistic Studies, a program that self-consciously embraces the old idea of humanistic education as the scholarly study of great books and works of art across the disciplines.

If there is no acute crisis in the humanities, why are so many people so ready to believe that there is? Part of the answer is clear. American universities are under intense budget pressure, thanks in part to cuts in funding but also because of spiraling medical and other costs. In this brutal fiscal climate, academic programs are being cut. Many of these cuts are in the sciences, notably — and tragically — in physics. And yet the most widely publicized cuts are in the humanities: German at the University of Pittsburgh; French, Italian, and classics at SUNY Albany. These cuts stick in the mind and seem to confirm a trend because they play into a preconception: In times like these, we think, the humanities must be on the ropes. They are “impractical,” after all; students must be exiting in droves.

But this can’t be the whole story, so let me suggest another piece of the puzzle. Any educated person can rattle off a list of the great achievements of science and technology in the past 50 years: the Big Bang, cloning, the Internet, etc. People who have no idea what the Higgs boson is or why it matters still can tell you that it was discovered in July 2012 by a heroic team of scientists and that the discovery reveals something deep about the universe. What does the average educated American know about the great scholarly achievements in the humanities in the past half-century? Nothing. And this is no accident.

Any humanist can list dozens of groundbreaking books, and if you have the time and patience, he or she can begin to tell you why they matter. But there are profound limits on what you can learn about the humanities secondhand. Most discoveries in the humanities are about cultural objects — books, paintings, etc. More specifically, they are discoveries about the meanings of these objects, their connections to one another, and the highly specific ways in which they are valuable. And the trouble is that this sort of discovery simply cannot be conveyed in a convincing way to someone who has never wrestled with the things themselves. To choose just one example: In 2010 Princeton professor Leonard Barkan, one of the most distinguished humanists of our time, published a beautiful book about Michelangelo’s drawings. The book calls attention to the striking fact that nearly a third of these drawings contain scrawled text: from finished poems and strange fragments to shopping lists and notes to self. Barkan’s book shows beyond doubt that our experience of the drawings is deeper when the drawings and texts are read together. But if you don’t have the drawings (or the extraordinary reproductions in Barkan’s book) in front of you, what can this mean to you? A capsule summary of Barkan’s “discovery” — admittedly an odd word in this context — is like a verbal description of a food one has never tasted. The description may persuade you that there is something there worth tasting, but in the nature of the case, it cannot begin to convey the taste itself.

In my field, philosophy, the situation is somewhat different, since philosophy is not mainly concerned with cultural objects. Philosophers read Plato and Aristotle, of course, and many philosophers study such things professionally. But Plato and Aristotle themselves were not mainly concerned with texts. They were concerned with the structure of reality (metaphysics) or the sources of knowledge (epistemology) or the principles of justice, and in this respect little has changed. So where are the breakthroughs in metaphysics and epistemology and ethics in the past half-century, and why don’t you, educated reader, know all about them? Again, I could list dozens of important books, and I could start to tell you why they matter. But I predict with great confidence that you would not be impressed by any quick summary I could give. The reason is that the value of great philosophy hardly ever lies in the punch line. It lies in the arguments — intricate, detailed arguments. And the sad fact is that this sort of thing cannot be conveyed in headlines, or even in a 17-minute TED talk. Like discoveries elsewhere in the humanities, discoveries in philosophy are incompressible: Their interest can only be conveyed at length by taking one’s interlocutor through the argument. (In this respect, and in this respect alone, they resemble discoveries in pure mathematics.)

My sense is that this explains to some extent the near-complete invisibility of humanistic scholarship in the wider culture, and hence the popular sense that the intellectual action must be somewhere else. If this is right, then our “crisis” is largely a PR problem. There is a widespread perception that the humanities in particular are on the ropes, and even if it is false, this perception can have real consequences. Intellectually engaged students, after all, want to be where the action is, and if the action always seems to be elsewhere, they will not find their way to the humanities.

Problems like this do not have quick solutions. Still, some of the main steps are clear enough. First, since the value of the humanities will be always lost on people who never have worked through a poem with someone who knows what he or she is talking about, humanists have a special obligation to see to it that teachers are well trained and that school curricula incorporate serious study of the humanities. (The new “Common Core” standards are a disappointment in this regard.) Second, we must face the fact that while scientists have armies of journalists eager to popularize their work, we humanists will get nowhere unless we write books that non-experts can read with pleasure. Some humanists (mostly historians) do this brilliantly. Princeton professor emeritus Peter Brown’s 2013 treatise on late antiquity, Through the Eye of a Needle, is both a scholarly masterpiece and a page-turner, with 20,000 copies sold and counting. But elsewhere in the humanities this is rare, and that’s a problem. We can hardly expect support when the chips are down from people who have no idea what we do.

If the challenge is to make the value of humanistic scholarship visible, the onus falls mainly on scholars and teachers. But our students — which is to say, our alumni — have a role to play. Anyone who has seen the humanities at their best, as so many of our students have, is in a position to testify authoritatively both to the intrinsic value of humanistic scholarship and to the practical value of the tools one acquires along the way. If the challenge is to adjust the prevailing image of the humanities, then statistics and measured arguments won’t suffice. Perceptions are changed by stories, after all. And if we have done our jobs as teachers, our students are the ones whose stories may matter most.

Gideon Rosen *92 is the Stuart Professor of Philosophy, chair of the Council of the Humanities, and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies at Princeton.

This story has been revised to correct the year of the Higgs boson discovery and to note that Benjamin Schmidt *13 is a graduate alumnus.