Open Letter Defends Social Science, Humanities in Wake of Pandemic

While social science has proven instrumental in preventing the COVID-19 pandemic from being worse than it has been, that hasn’t prevented higher education from looking at their humanities and social sciences departments with a jaundiced eye when COVID has ravaged their budgets. A number of these disciplines have seen their programs discontinued at the bachelor or graduate levels as schools decide that one way to save money in a hurry is to wield an axe and not a scalpel.

While this is not to say that all colleges and universities are only cutting humanities and social sciences when they decide to cut programs – some do cut things like athletics or STEM fields – social science and humanities prove to be softer targets in many cases. There have been alarms raised – “The social sciences on our campuses – and quite likely throughout the University of California – stand at the edge of a fiscal precipice,” wrote three deans in the UC system for the news site Cal Matters, for example — but none of the announced cuts have been rolled back.

This week, almost 60 learned societies, associations and higher-education serving groups signed onto an open letter that argues “humanistic education and scholarship must remain central to campus communities and conversations.” Signatories range from the Social Science Research Council and American Philosophical Society to the New York Public Library and the Society of Biblical Literature. “We respect the autonomy of every institution of higher learning and the good-faith efforts of administrators forced to make difficult decisions in historically unprecedented conditions of uncertainty and financial shock,” the latter notes. “With that respect must come an urgent reminder of the vital contribution made by the humanities and social sciences to the public good.”

The full letter appears below.

COVID-19 And The Key Role Of The Humanities And Social Sciences in the United States

Consider the spread of COVID-19, global environmental degradation, and the deep divisions around race in this country. Our collective responses to these and other challenges arise from understanding human behavior, the stories and beliefs that guide us, the cultures and values that we build and share, and the visionary aspirations of thinkers past and present. “Where there is no vision,” James Baldwin wrote, drawing from the book of Proverbs, “the people perish.”

At this critical moment in history, humanistic knowledge – the study of languages, history, culture, the arts, anthropology, archaeology, communication, philosophy, political science, psychology, religious studies, rhetoric, sociology, regional studies, and interdisciplinary areas – is crucial to envisioning and realizing a better future for the world. For this reason, we believe that humanistic education and scholarship must remain central to campus communities and conversations.

On behalf of the thousands of students, faculty, and members of scholarly societies devoted to the study of humanity, we call on all leaders of institutions of higher education to uphold the central importance of the humanities and the social sciences as you make important decisions that will shape the institutions under your stewardship for years and perhaps generations to come.

This is a time for institutions to explore new modes of organization that facilitate innovation while maintaining the integrity of a diverse range of academic disciplines, and to do so with a full embrace of American higher education’s tradition of shared governance.

COVID-19 and its economic consequences are placing immense pressures on college and university budgets across the United States. Preparing for decreases in tuition revenue or state funding or both, many institutions have announced freezes on hiring, reductions in numbers of contract and adjunct faculty, and cuts in funding for research. Some are considering eliminating entire departments and programs.

We respect the autonomy of every institution of higher learning and the good-faith efforts of administrators forced to make difficult decisions in historically unprecedented conditions of uncertainty and financial shock. With that respect must come an urgent reminder of the vital contribution made by the humanities and social sciences to the public good – a keystone of charters and mission statements adopted by colleges and universities across the country.

Humanistic study in American colleges and universities provides communal contexts in which students, increasingly diverse in background and experience, learn together about human reasoning, beliefs, and aspirations, social and political systems, and acts of creative expression produced across centuries and around the world. Humanistic study compels us to wrestle with complex questions, with difference and conflict as well as similarity. It furnishes us with diverse visions of the world and encourages us to refuse to take things for granted – capacities necessary to sustain a just and democratic society.

Humanistic education provides not only skills for democratic life, but also skills sought by employers, such as the analysis of conflicting evidence, complex problem-solving, clear communication, and the ability to judge matters in cultural and interpersonal context.

As stewards of humanistic scholarship, we are in a position to share our knowledge of our fields, their condition, current directions, and value to students and to global society. To sustain the centrality of humanistic studies in one of our nation’s greatest assets – our private and public system of higher education – we offer our support to colleges and universities seeking the best path forward in difficult times.

Joy Connolly
President
American Council of Learned Societies

Richard Ekman
President
Council of Independent Colleges

Sara Guyer
President
Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes

Robert M. Hauser
Executive Officer
American Philosophical Society

William C. Kirby
Chair, Board of Directors
American Council of Learned Societies

Anthony W. Marx
President
The New York Public Library

Mary Miller
Director
Getty Research Institute

Robert D. Newman
President and Director
National Humanities Center

David Oxtoby
President
American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Lynn Pasquerella
President
Association of American Colleges and Universities

David Scobey
Director
Bringing Theory to Practice

Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library
Federation of State Humanities Councils
Institute for Advanced Study
National Humanities Alliance
The Phi Beta Kappa Society
Social Science Research Council
African Studies Association
American Academy of Religion
American Anthropological Association
American Association of Geographers
American Folklore Society
American Historical Association
American Oriental Society
American Philosophical Association
American Political Science Association
American Schools of Oriental Research
American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
American Society for Environmental History
American Society for Theatre Research
American Society of Comparative Law
American Society of International Law
American Sociological Association
American Studies Association
Archaeological Institute of America
Association for Asian Studies
Association for Jewish Studies
Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
College Art Association
College Forum of the National Council of Teachers of English
German Studies Association
Hispanic Society of America
International Center of Medieval Art
Latin American Studies Association
Linguistic Society of America
Medieval Academy of America
Middle East Studies Association of North America
Modern Language Association of America
National Communication Association
National Council on Public History
Renaissance Society of America
Rhetoric Society of America
Shakespeare Association of America
Sixteenth Century Society and Conference
Society for Classical Studies
Society for Ethnomusicology
Society for French Historical Studies
Society of Architectural Historians
Society of Biblical Literature

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