Asking Fundamental Questions About the Humanities | From the Bell Tower

We’ve moved beyond the question of whether people are better off if they go to college. They are. Now that that’s settled, we need to figure out what it means to be college educated and what the humanities contribute to student learning.
steven-bell-newswireWe’ve moved beyond the question of whether people are better off if they go to college. They are. Now that that’s settled, we need to figure out what it means to be college educated and what the humanities contribute to student learning. You would think that after 800 years of evolution in higher education, we would have a reasonably well-formed sense of what a college or university is, the positive benefits it provides to individuals and society, and what defines someone as being college educated. Yet looking back at the big themes in higher education over the past few years, what emerges is a fundamental questioning of the foundations, asking what is higher education, what is its value, for whom is it intended, and what should it be? This is a good thing. For too many years, higher education followed the same familiar patterns, moving forward with some experimentation but little dramatic innovation, always becoming more costly and less accountable for results. That made it a target of critics who asked why anyone still needed college and whether college graduates actually learned anything of real value. Then the wake-up call came, in the form of 2012’s “Year of the MOOC” declarations. While MOOCs (massive open online courses) went through their own trials and tribulations in 2013, rapidly ascending and almost as quickly experiencing a backlash from naysayers who pointed to failures, alternate forms of higher education forced traditional institutions to evaluate and rethink what they were doing, and to create reforms that would respond to the critics and let them know that higher education would fix itself. Drawing of a crane removing the Humanities sign from the front of a college; stick figure explains "we don't need it anymore."

Who Needs the Humanities

MOOCs still reigned as the media darling of 2013. It seemed that for much of the year, hardly a day passed without news of some new innovation or development. If nothing else, we were treated to lots of new acronyms that represented variations on the MOOC theme, such as SMOCs, DOCCs and SPOCs. Perhaps all of the attention generated by the advance of MOOCs and associated experimentation sparked the big higher education question of 2013: What happened to the humanities? I first took note of what was to become a fairly significant debate, fueled by dozens of opinion pieces, in mid-June, with the publication of an essay by New York Times columnist David Brooks. As a member of the commission that produced Heart of the Matter, a report calling for the revitalization of the humanities and social sciences, he described the humanities as being in a state of crisis.

Debating the Humanities

Two forces combined to lead this new fundamental questioning of the humanities. First, of what value were the humanities to students who needed careers and jobs to pay off their tuition debt? It’s easy to make the case that accounting majors do better than English majors in the job market. Second, that humanists themselves had lost sight of their mission, having shifted the focus from “cultivating the human core,” as Brooks put it, to politics and social trends. Were the humanities truly experiencing a crisis? Not everyone agreed. A dialog in the media about the state of the humanities carried on for weeks. Shortly following Brooks was an essay titled “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” on the same report, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. It addressed the decline in humanities majors and why it is difficult to sell students and parents on the value of being a humanities major. Career-oriented majors have a more immediate and obvious result. The humanities, on the other hand, have a different outcome, which Klinkenborg described as a gift of “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” Those with a humanities degree, Klinkenborg said, need to do “some living to find out this truth.” Others sought to debunk claims that humanities majors were in decline. Both Nate Silver and Michael Berube wrote columns arguing that when one analyzed the data, while the humanities suffered a loss of majors between 1970 and 1980, since then, the number of majors and students taking humanities courses has stayed relatively constant and compares reasonably to similar change in nonhumanities disciplines. Pundits and columnists can wax eloquently about what’s wrong and right with the humanities, but for faculty at quite a few institutions, from public universities in Pennsylvania to elites like Stanford, humanities programs were being eliminated or seeing worrisome declines in enrollment. Given their concerns that the humanities are indeed fading while STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and business studies get the funding and attention, it’s easy to see why faculty and graduate students are excited about the digitization of the humanities. Some believe it is one path to reestablishing that the study of the humanities adds valued skills essential across the disciplines. For even more commentary on this debate, the Chronicle of Higher Education put together a fairly comprehensive collection of the many news articles and commentaries generated by the report.

No Humanities Debate in India

With all this mental hand-wringing over the status and future fate of the humanities, it was ironic that at the same time all this debate was taking place, India, a country whose higher education system is dominated by technology and business, announced plans to create Ashoka University, its first private liberal arts institution. While planners promised parents that students would still be well prepared for careers, Ashoka is this country’s recognition that college students need more than employability. They also need, as one potential faculty member put it, “the ability to deal with ambiguity and ask questions of the world around us.” How is it that other countries like India, where higher education is a developing enterprise, recognize the values of the humanities, while we question if they still work at all?

Support from the Library

While the report and its critics both raise legitimate concerns—and humanities faculty should be alarmed that the value of their teaching and research is undergoing scrutiny while some institutions are eliminating philosophy, language, and other humanities programs—the humanities are in no immediate danger of extinction. With many other fundamental assumptions about higher education being questioned, it’s reasonable to expect an examination of the humanities with the intent to reform or rethink today’s programs. Academic librarians have a vested interest in the survival and growth of the humanities. It is typically through the English department that a majority of library instruction activity is centered, particularly for freshmen. In addition, many academic librarians are humanists who build collections in these disciplines, deliver instruction, participate in the disciplinary associations, and feel strongly connected to the faculty and students in these academic units. Commentaries about the decline of the humanities often point to the importance of these programs for educating students to achieve critical thinking, to ask good questions, and to appreciate culture. Academic librarians share those goals with humanities educators. Wherever the debate about the future of the humanities heads, academic librarians must continue to support the teaching and research conducted in these departments. For an increasing number of academic libraries, the way to do that is through support of digital humanities research and, when possible, with a library-based digital humanities lab. While the humanities debate has somewhat subsided as we enter 2014, we will continue to see the value of and need for some, if not all, humanities programs being questioned, with institutions continuing to put them on the chopping block as they look to eliminate programs with declining enrollments—or even those that may be difficult to support as higher education becomes increasingly career oriented and subject to accountability pressures.

Big Question for 2014

MOOCs, their variants, and other attempts at higher education reform such as competency-based education will continue to gain attention and raise big questions about where traditional higher education is headed in this new year. Higher education, in turn, will continue to look inward in examining its weakest links. The subject of considerable debate in higher education, the question of who should be teaching higher education, has yet to achieve the type of mass media attention garnered by MOOCs. This year may just be the one where the issue of contingent faculty explodes in the public’s eye. The number of college students and their parents who never question who does the teaching, their qualifications or connection to students in the college classroom, is astounding. The use of part-time faculty is now so ingrained in higher education it is difficult to imagine how becoming the subject of a national conversation would contribute to change. Still, it remains an area ripe for reform, and what’s more fundamental than who is teaching? It will be interesting to see what emerges as the big issue for 2014. Whatever it is, I hope academic librarians will be paying attention.
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Doc Akron

As with all things these days, we over analyze. Innovation comes out of serendipity. College is needed because K-12 education is lax at teaching students "how to learn" and instead teaches students "what to learn." Writing, reading, and thinking skills are still sought by most employers. We might need to concentrate on math and science, but if graduates can't communicate, we face some dismal times. The humanities are just as important to education as biomedical technology. Further, college major choice is overrated. People adapt and find further training on the job or post-college when they need it.

Posted : Feb 27, 2014 01:12

Louis Bell

After graduating from Temple undergraduate school 40 years ago I still fail to see how the history , psychology, and similar subjects help me day to day in my career which is soon to end. How I wish I went to an engineering program.

Posted : Jan 27, 2014 11:10

Adrian Jenkins

We are seeing the contingent faculty concept come to the fore in the vocational education institution that I work at in New Zealand. Moving beyond part time teachers, we are seeing industry experts, who are not particular trained as teachers, come in to teach vocational courses.

Posted : Jan 17, 2014 02:46


The writing is on the wall. Science/Math/Engr = job Hist/Eng/Soc=? Will institutions soon race to jettison the Hunanities?

Posted : Jan 17, 2014 02:04




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