The Chronicle Review

Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?

William Brown for The Chronicle

September 05, 2010

More than a decade ago, during my annual physical, I happened to have a conversation with my general practitioner about Bill Readings's instant classic, The University in Ruins (1997). I rehearsed the argument of the book and then received a surprising response. "The university is in great shape," my doctor told me. He elaborated, saying that his position as a member of Ohio State University's medical-school faculty afforded him flexible hours and a good salary, his private practice supplemented that, and most central, his studies in hypertension, sponsored by the giant drug company Pfizer, were quite lucrative.

The conversation, and the revelation that my fellow faculty member saw the university mainly as the means by which he could consult for a major corporation, had a lasting effect on my thinking and subsequent writing about higher education. I came away with the suspicion, one that I still hold today, that humanists all too often use "the humanities" and "the university" as equivalent terms. The university is no more in ruins now than when Readings published his book.

Yet the equation is ubiquitous: Witness the recent initiative, the Academy in Hard Times, announced by Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. Feal said, "You don't need me to tell you that the academy is going through one of the most difficult periods in its history." A spokesperson for several major fields in the humanities, Feal simply seems to assume that "the academy" and "the humanities" are synonyms; as such, both are in need of protection in today's economy.

In fact, the humanities and the university are not the same. Since the 1970s, all disciplines in the humanities have suffered from budgetary shortfalls and the absence of a job market. But that's just the humanities. Ohio State recently completely remodeled its library and built a state-of-the-art recreation facility (it now seems that no university is legitimate without a climbing wall) as well as a lavish student union. Salaries for business and law professors reflect the university's valuation of its faculty members: Full professors in business make an average annual salary of $208,000; full professors of law, $180,000; and full professors in arts and humanities earn an average of $108,000. Other universities can tell similar stories: Indiana University of Pennsylvania recently built the largest dormitory in the country. The good times are rolling in higher education.

What has happened is that the center of gravity at almost all universities has shifted so far away from the humanities that the most pertinent answer to the question "Will the humanities survive in the 21st century?" is not "yes" or "no," but "Who cares?"

We need to start by asking, "If the humanities and the university are not one and the same, what are the consequences for the humanities?" If my conversation with my physician is any indication, the consequences for the humanities aren't good, and that should prompt us to ask additional questions. Most important, we need to inspect our disciplines in the context of a much longer institutional history than we typically do. For students of academe in 1910, the question—"Will the humanities survive the 20th century?"—would have been answerable. Almost everyone would have replied, "Of course." Andrew Carnegie, who famously declared that liberal-arts education fitted a college graduate for "life on another planet," would most likely have added, "Yes, but what a shame." I can only think of one person, Thorstein Veblen, who would not automatically have said, "Yes, of course." Fast-forward 100 years: No one is at all certain about the survival of the humanities.

To assess the future of the humanities, consider first the curriculum. Astonishingly (to me at least), the curriculum of 1910, while much changed, is still recognizable today. The classics are all but gone. Once Harvard and Yale eliminated Greek as a requirement in the late 19th century, student interest quickly drifted away from it. In 1907, 98 percent of students entering Yale had a prior knowledge of Greek. In 1921, just 14 years later, 50 percent of all entering students had prior knowledge, and, once at Yale, only 8 percent decided to continue to study it. The fact is that the standard curriculum remained fairly prescriptive throughout the 20th century, but as more colleges offered electives and introduced the concept of the academic major, students gradually elected not to study the humanities.

Thus the emphasis has changed significantly. A fascinating study published by Stanford University Press in 2006, tracking trends in faculty hiring in the British Commonwealth throughout the 20th century, confirms that in overwhelming terms. The study showed that between 1915 and 1995, the total number of faculty jobs in the humanities declined by 41 percent, while the total number of faculty jobs in the social sciences increased by 222 percent. The natural sciences declined by 12 percent. If shifts like that in the United States are even vaguely comparable (and I believe they are), then the humanities' share of the university pie has been shrinking for nearly a century.

The shifting social mission of the university will also contribute to the shrinkage of the humanities as we move forward. The colleges of 1910 served a tiny population—only the children of the elite. College was, in most cases, either free or relatively inexpensive, but it served no purpose in the lives of the vast majority of everyday workers. Now, a college credential of some kind is all but mandatory for any job that pays a living wage. Roughly 18 million students are enrolled, with those numbers projected to continue going up. At first glance, that might seem to bode well for the humanities, but in fact, the opposite is true. The credentials that the influx of students seek, and the colleges that grant them, would have been unforeseeable in 1910.

It would be hard to imagine a major research university being built from scratch today. More pertinent, it's becoming prohibitively expensive to attend four-year universities and liberal-arts colleges. As a result, the second half of the 20th century witnessed an explosion in the number of two-year colleges, which remain inexpensive (average annual tuition is $2,544 per year), and which ask for a much briefer time commitment from students. Community colleges are booming. In 2009, Lone Star College, a network of two-year institutions in Houston, purchased a large office building from Hewlett-Packard to accommodate its staff and some 62,000 students and growing. Columbus State Community College, in Ohio, this year reached the limits of its downtown campus and had to lease classrooms from nearby Franklin University.

The phenomenon of community colleges barely able to keep pace with growing enrollments has paved the way for the for-profit university. Although for-profits are consistently more expensive than community colleges (average annual tuition is $14,174), they have become experts at using the national financial-aid system to recruit poor students (with median family incomes of $36,000 in 2004, compared with $53,000 for community-college students). The vast majority of for-profit students attend college without paying any money out of pocket. Taxpayers subsidize them, in what continues to prove a very successful boondoggle.

These thriving new institutions have virtually no commitment to the humanities, but instead usually focus on occupation-oriented missions. Let me offer a frightening example: In 2001 the entire for-profit, postsecondary industry graduated a little more than 28,000 students with associate and bachelor's degrees in business and management, a little more than 10,000 A.A.'s and B.A.'s in the health sciences, and not a single English major. Despite the progressive expansion of the general student population, the humanities stand to lose ground steadily. The last year in which 50 percent of students graduated with B.A.'s in traditional liberal-arts subjects—English, history, languages, philosophy—was 1970, and that was higher than it had been in a while.

Let me return now to my doctor's comments about Pfizer. They speak volumes about the material base of the new university. In the economic climate of the last 40 years, traditional universities—not just for-profits—are becoming both research-and-development labs and vending sites for multinational corporations. The state of affairs bears most directly on universities in the public sector, as documented in Gaye Tuchman's meticulous and depressing ethnographic study, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Since the 1970s, public higher education has ceased to be considered a civic responsibility and has become another kind of entity. James Duderstadt, president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996, acerbically characterized the trend during his tenure: "We used to be state-supported, then state-assisted, and now we are state-located." He's right. Today the University of Michigan receives about 8 percent of its operating budget from the state.

Thus universities have had no choice but to function increasingly as corporations and to form partnerships with corporations, and this turn of events fundamentally alters their institutional dynamic. Research was the first to feel the effects. The Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 stipulated that federally financed research done by faculty members that results in patents belongs not to the professors but to the universities that employ them. Of course, the legislation is only relevant to applied sciences—areas like hypertension studies, for example. But the prospect of marketable products (patents) makes universities an appealing investment for corporations, in particular, because those corporations now have to negotiate only with upper-level administrators, and not with an assortment of free-agent faculty members.

More generally, Bayh-Dole also inaugurated the era of earmarked corporate donations. That, in turn, is important because such sources of revenue are all that's keeping state universities afloat. Ohio State, for example, ranks third in the country in bringing in corporate donations. Elite private universities, by contrast, rely much more heavily on alumni donations. Top recipients of those funds were Washington and Lee University, Bowdoin College, Princeton University, and Cornell University.

The shift in the material base of the university leaves the humanities entirely out in the cold. Corporations don't earmark donations for the humanities because our research culture is both self-contained and absurd. Essentially, we give the copyrights of our scholarly articles and monographs to university presses, and then buy them back, or demand that our libraries buy them back, at exorbitant markups. And then no one reads them. The current tenure system obliges us all to be producers of those things, but there are no consumers.

So, will the humanities survive the 21st century? My guess may surprise you, in light of the trends I've just rehearsed: Yes.

Intelligent popular novels continue to be written; the nonfiction of humanists who defy disciplinary affiliation (Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Garry Wills, among others) will still make best-seller lists; and brilliant independent films (like Slumdog Millionaire) will occasionally capture large popular audiences.

The survival of the humanities in academe, however, is a different story. The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won't be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don't need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own.

Some people may argue that, even if the humanities flourish outside academe, some group will have to train the new generation of public humanists how to read and write. Perhaps, but I see no compelling reason that those trainers must be college professors. There were many great poets, playwrights, and novelists in the United States long before 1922, when the University of Iowa became the first university in the country to accept creative projects as theses for advanced degrees. Russell Jacoby, in The Last Intellectuals, persuasively charted the migration of humanists from the world of literary magazines to academe. As working conditions in the humanities wing of the university continue to erode, what's to stop those humanists from migrating again?

When we claim to wonder whether the humanities will survive the 21st century, we're really asking, "Will the humanities have a place in the standard higher-education curriculum in the United States?" That's not really an intellectual question but a self-interested professional one, because we humanists would like to see ourselves as stewards of the curriculum. In reality, though, we are not, nor have we been for the last two generations. Curricula change over time, and the humanities simply don't have a place in the emergent curriculum of the 21st century.

Frank Donoghue is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University. His most recent book is The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham University Press, 2008).