The Place of the Humanities in the University Today

HomeEssaysEducation (Essays)The Place of the Humanities in the University Today
College University Academia Education

The decline of the humanities in American higher education – literature, history, philosophy, classical studies, linguistics, and foreign languages – is most recently evident in the drop in enrollments from 17.2% of degrees in 1967 to 6.5% in 2013.[1] Further proof of this decline is the decreasing number of academic positions available in these disciplines. For instance, in the 2013-14 academic year, there was an 8.4% drop in English positions and 6.8% in foreign language positions when compared to the previous year; and a 37.7% drop in English positions and 43.8% drop in foreign language positions when compared to 2007-8.[2] History has not fared much better, with a 7% drop in 2013-14 when compared to the previous year, and a 40% drop when compared to 2007-8.[3] One suspects a similar fate for philosophy and classical studies, although data is not yet available to confirm these suspicions.[4]

The prospect of reversing this trajectory in academic employment is not promising, as these disciplines’ self-studies have pointed out that budget cuts have eliminated positions, encouraged faculty members to put off retirement, increased class size, pushed departments to adopt online courses, and caused the hiring of part-time or adjunct instructors to reduce costs. Furthermore, an emphasis on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has not only attracted more students but also more resources from the university, government, and private sector at the expense of the humanities.[5] The attraction of STEM can partly be explained by its utilitarian appeal of employment, an undercurrent that always has existed in American society’s understanding of higher education. Additionally, Americans becoming self-conscious of their increasing dependence upon technology and their anxiety about the nation’s perceived economic and military decline in an age of globalization also have led to support of the STEM fields.

But perhaps more disturbing is the loss of self-confidence that the practitioners of the humanities have displayed. Of course, the rhetoric of crisis in American higher education is as old as the Republic itself, but what makes this current situation different is that the crisis is aimed at the humanities, not at American higher education per se, and that nobody, including the practitioners of the humanities, seem to care about it, except perhaps to wallow in self-pity or sneer at society. In short, the scholars of the humanities have failed to persuade students, colleagues, administrators, and the general public of their value.

There are several accounts of this recent loss of confidence in the humanities. For instance, the conservative critique claims that the decline of humanities is due to their faculty being preoccupied with theory, particularly postmodern theory, and popular culture at the expense of mastering the content and tradition of classic works or the “Great Books.”[6] Instead of learning literature, philosophy, or history, students are exposed to a water-down Leftish politics with its esoteric jargon that is neither inspiring nor attractive. The conservative critique also perceives a general moral and aesthetic decline in the standards and values of society which only makes it more difficult for the humanities to justify their value.

Coincidentally, the conservative argument about the decline and fall of western society is shared by the liberal critique of the demise of the humanities.[7] However, the barbarians at the gate are not postmodern professors and leftist activists but economic elites and the structural problems inherent in a capitalist society. According to the liberal critique, the decline of the humanities is due to the dominance of capitalist values in society where students see professional success and well-being only in economic terms. The values of the humanities are not recognizable in such an environment and therefore are discarded.

Finally, the professional critique continues this line of reasoning from its liberal counterpart but applies it to the university itself.[8] The introduction of capitalist practices and values into academia has led to underfunded humanities departments, an overcrowded job market, and pressure to publish for job security, no matter how trivial the topic. Because the humanities are resistant to standardization, whether in administrative rule or in disciplinary analysis, they are unable to compete with those disciplines (e.g., STEM) that are compatible with capitalist practices and values. The result is the humanities are displaced from a position of prominence in the university.

In response to this loss of confidence, the humanities have offered several arguments in support their values, although it seems that these arguments have little influence today. The first one is an appeal to the tradition or moral values of the humanities: these disciplines are important intellectual endeavors in their own right and therefore should be valued and protected as such.[9] This argument also is made by those who advocate liberal education. However, the argument has little appeal except to those who already agree with it, for clearly other disciplines, such as STEM, also have their own tradition, moral values, and are considered important intellectual endeavors, in addition to providing employment and material and scientific advancement. Appeals to tradition and proclamations of moral worth are essentially religious arguments that are effective only if you happen to believe in them first.

The second and more persuasive argument about the value of the humanities is that they foster skills critical to being a human being, worker, and citizen[10]. The study of the humanities leads one to think critically, write clearly, and communicate well. Thus, it is not a surprise that humanities courses tend to be overrepresented in universities’ general education programs because they supply students with critical skills necessary for their work in their specialized subjects. But is this really the case? Surely other disciplines, like the STEM, can teach students how to think, write, and communicate well. It is difficult to imagine that the humanities are somehow uniquely suited for this task.[11] Perhaps the STEM disciplines could do even better than the humanities in teaching students these skills. By relying upon the “critical skill set” argument, the humanities may have inadvertently accelerated their demise in the university because other and more popular disciplines may in fact be better able to teaching such things.

The third response is to change the nature of the discipline itself in order to make it more relevant and attractive to students: instead of reading the novels of Jane Austen, a literature student can watch film adaptions; rather than learn Wittgenstein or Aquinas, a philosophy student is taught the ethics of business; in place of the study of World War I, a history student learns about 1960s popular culture.[12] Although all disciplines have to evolve and change over time, the incorporation of latest trends and fashions can strike one as desperate, an attempt to attract students at any price, and a loss of confidence about the value and relevance that used to constitute the core of one’s discipline. This change in the nature of the humanities also does not address the problem of value when compared to other disciplines. Although the humanities thus reconceived might be able to attract more students because of their popular appeal, it is not clear what new or additional values they would offer, especially when compared to the STEM disciplines.

These old arguments about the value of the humanities have proved ineffectual, as is evident in the fact that the number of degrees granted in humanities disciplines continues to decline, academic positions continue to disappear, and the humanities’ prestige in the public eye has all but vanished.[13] Instead of recycling old arguments, new ones are required if the humanities wish to retain a place in the university today. What these will be remains unclear at the moment, but one can hope that these disciplines have the internal resources to find new ways to make themselves relevant not only to the university but to society as well.




[1] “Bachelor Degrees in the Humanities,” Humanities Indicators: A Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, January 2015. Available at Accessed July 26, 2015; also refer to Ella Delany, “Humanities Studies Under Strain Around the Globe,” The New York Times, December 1, 2013. Available at Accessed July 26, 2015; Alvin Kernan. What’s Happened to the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[2] “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2013-14,” MLA Office of Research, Fall 2014. Available at Accessed July 26, 2015.

[3] Allen Mikaelian, “The Academic Job Market’s Jagged Line: Number of Ads Placed Dropped for Second Year,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine for the American Historical Association, September 2014. Available at Accessed July 26, 2015.

[4] The American Philosophical Association is currently collecting data for analysis of employment in philosophy and will make these results available in August, 2015. The American Philosophical Association. Available at Accessed July 26, 2015.

[5] “Chapter 3:Postsecondary Education,” Digest of Education Statistics: 2013, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences. U.S. Department of Education. Available at Accessed July 26, 2015.

[6] Allan Bloom, Closing the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987); John M. Ellis, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[7] Anthony Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2010); Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[8] Ibid; also refer to Mark Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York: Knopf, 2010).

[9] Bloom, Closing the American Mind.

[10] Nussbaum, Not for Profit and Cultivating Humanities: A Classical Defense of the Reform of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Ryan Nichols, “Why is the History of Philosophy Worth Our Study?” Metaphilosophy 37.1 (2006): 1-20.

[11] There also is empirical evidence that suggest students who study at the university, especially the humanities, actually do not improve in their thinking and writing. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. H. Hersh, We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Houndmill, Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillian, 2011).

[12] Michael Bérubé, The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

[13] Perhaps the best example of the public not seeing value in the humanities is the holiday ritual of The New York Times to run a mockery article about the topics presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association.

Lee Trepanier

Written by

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan where he teaches political philosophy, constitutional law, American Politics, and is the university's pre-law adviser. He is editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and the editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present). He is author and editor of sixteen books, the latest being Political Science: Concepts, Methods, and Topics (Kendall Hunt, 2016).