Humanities and the Liberal University: Calls to Action

Humanities booksIn the recent special issue of the journal Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Ronald Barnett makes a pointed observation and then asks an even more pointed question: “The humanities go through crises — a crisis of the humanities — every decade or so. Are we currently in the midst of just such a crisis? Or is it a terminal crisis?”

Such language of despair is certainly widespread, fostered by an increasingly careerist mindset at universities and dismissive chatter, a liberal arts version of the Coburn amendment, in the corridors of political power. The special issue’s  response to these ill winds is to promote the humanities — much as the social sciences have, and for similar reasons — and to “imagine” a brighter future.

Legitimate concerns do shade the present. Characterizing the humanities as a “nice-to-have” but hardly essential function of the U.S. government, a preliminary budget deal last year proposed cutting funding for cultural organizations in half. “Federal subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can no longer be justified,” the budget resolution said. “The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government, and they are generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” (In a glass-half–full conclusion, the committee added, “These agencies can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference.”)

The axe did not actually fall, at least not this fiscal year, and the billion or so federal dollars allocated for the main arts programs remain safe. But a message was sent — and received.

Partisans of the humanities have not been idle, Emerson College’s Donna Heiland and Carnegie Senior Scholar Mary Taylor Huber report in an article that opens the journal’s special issue. The article reviews two recent-ish reports, one from Harvard and one from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, that spotlight the utility of the disciplines. “[T]hey both know that,” the pair write of the documents released last June, “true as this may be, the message is not being heard—by students, academic leaders, policy makers, and the larger public—and make strong recommendations for how to remedy this situation.”

The Harvard effort had the more modest aim of the two papers. Subtitled “Mapping the Future,” the 66-page report looked at ways to reverse the fall-off of undergraduate education in the arts and humanities specifically at Harvard; “If our document is elsewhere applicable, we will be delighted,” the authors wrote. According to that document, 57 percent of Harvard undergrads who initially concentrate in the humanities graduate with a different major; they opt for the social sciences about half the time. (In the social sciences themselves, the departure rate is 19 percent.)

When they do jump ship to the social sciences, the experience might be akin to leaping from one frying pan to another, suggests the report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. That document, “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation,” lumped the ostensible competitors together as disciplines under siege. It was drafted following a request from Congress asking how governments, institutions, and even individuals could support these fields; the result was intended to echo the reaction heard in the STEM fields when the National Academies published “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” in 2005.

The remedies offered in the reports are obvious, if easier prescribed than enacted. The takeaway from the Harvard report was sort of a  ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’: “increased attention to freshmen, to teaching, to a more general, interdisciplinary and integrative ideal of undergraduate education … the report also recommends a stronger focus on the interface between the humanities and the social sciences, and other disciplinary domains.”

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences report was more comprehensive, although marked by words like “support,” “Increase” and “encourage” that call for someone—but who?—to act. Nonetheless, Heiland and Huber found the efforts worthwhile:

It is heartening to have these two reports in circulation, speaking for the humanities (to borrow a phrase from Levine et al., 1989), making the case for their value, and mapping paths to their increased strength. They call us to action, and our only wish is that the calls had been even bolder: a little noisier, a little more disruptive, a little more likely to break through the familiarity of our ongoing conversations about the arts and humanities.

A similar qualified endorsement was offered by Martha J. Kanter, an undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education, who provided a response to Heiland and Huber’s paper in the special issue. “If we listen carefully,” Kanter wrote, “we can hear the beginning stages of a great reawakening to the true purposes and means of a high quality, well-rounded education. We may not be at that tipping point quite yet, but if we continue to make our case, it will soon be at hand.”

What about the question posed by Barnett (an emeritus professor of higher education at London’s Institute of Education) asking if the humanities’ crisis was terminal. His answer, perhaps surprising given the focus of the special issue, was a resounding yes. A yes, but with a caveat that recalls the Harvard report:

By placing itself against the canvas of the seismic changes in the place of mankind in the world and the roles of science and technology in manufacturing a new world order, this order of the humanities would reach out, forming new forms of interdisciplinary inquiry. We see signs of this already happening, in courses on medicine and the humanities, in the deployment of arts as therapy for forms of mental disability, in ethics for business, and in the conversations between philosophy and computer science; but signs such as these are but the foothills in steep climbs ahead.

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