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Oh, the humanities!

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  June 26, 2013 03:15 PM

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For centuries the humanities were the core of a respectable education but in recent years they've fallen on hard times. In the age of data and at a time of scarce jobs, fewer undergraduates are willing to peg their futures on an English degree.

This is true at state schools and in the Ivy League, which is why last year a team of Harvard humanities faculty members set out to study the change. Last month the working group, chaired by Homi Bhaba and Sean Kelly, released its analysis in three reports that examine why undergraduates are abandoning the humanities and proposes strategies for bringing them back.

“We need to tell our students that the fields we teach are interesting and important to building lives,” says Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities, who commissioned the reports, “But also to disabuse them of the notion that whatever you major in in college determines what you end up doing.”

The decline of the humanities has been in progress for decades. Between 1966 and 2010 the percentage of college graduates nationwide earning degrees in the humanities fell from 14 percent to 7 percent. Over that same period, a similar decline took place at Harvard, where the number of undergraduates majoring in humanities dipped from 24 percent to 17 percent.

As the working group dug into the statistics they noticed two significant trends. First, that more than half of entering Harvard freshman who say they intend to major in the humanities—defined at Harvard as literature, philosophy, the classics, film studies, art history, music, and religious studies (but not history)—end up majoring in something else. And second, that most of those defections are to social sciences, like government, psychology, and economics.

Why do so many students who come to Harvard on fire for Shakespeare end up settling down with Milton Friedman instead? The authors of the longest of the three reports, “The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard: Mapping the Future,” point to perceptions of the humanities as impractical, frivolous, not rigorous, and antiquated to our technology addled time.

In reply to those broadsides, the working group makes a confident case for the humanities as the engine of social critique and social change, and a place to recover knowledge that has been lost through history. And for students worried about their job market skills, the authors affirm the value of the humanities for teaching competencies like “lucid and persuasive writing and speaking.”

The value of the humanities may be clear to its practitioners but it’s harder to convey to undergraduates who don’t necessarily see the connection between Kant and a thriving post-graduate life. To counter that challenge—while capitalizing on the initial enthusiasm freshman show for the humanities—the working group proposes a set of three “gateway courses”—the Art of Listening, the Art of Reading, and the Art of Looking—that will introduce students to the different ways of thinking about the world proposed by the humanities. The report also outlines a set of freshman seminars on the kinds of big themes that press on a teenager’s consciousness, like love, justice, and happiness.

Sorensen stresses that all is not lost for the humanities and she argues that they offer a perspective that is as important now as ever.

“We should all return to questions of value, of interpretation, of the tension between tradition and innovation,” Sorensen says. “This is an age of impatience and we may find this has estranged us from our own understanding of meaning and value. It doesn’t mean you’re going to hide in the desert and ponder these questions, it means [undergraduates] are going to take four years to prepare for a complex world.”

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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