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Humanist: Heal Thyself

With a recently released report, Harvard University has weighed in on the crisis of the humanities, offering some surprising diagnoses. Mapping the Future is a thoughtful statement, crafted diplomatically in the hope of reassuring the often-fractious humanities community, while laying the groundwork for a potentially significant reconstruction of humanities education.

Declining humanities majors worry the Harvard faculty. In 1954, 36 percent of undergraduates at Harvard and Radcliffe College majored in the humanities. By 2012, that figure had fallen to 20 percent. Yet Harvard does fairly well when compared to national figures, which show a decline from 14 percent humanities B.A.’s awarded in 1966 to a mere 7 percent in 2010.

Clearly majoring in the humanities has long been an anomaly for American undergraduates, even at Harvard, which means that the protestations we hear today that the humanities are the heart of the university or that our democracy needs the humanities are factually inaccurate. Still, it is surely fair for humanities faculty members to ask how they might attract more students.

That is particularly the case because, thanks to the report’s excellent finer-grained institutional research, we learn that students who enter Harvard intending to major in the humanities migrate to other fields—especially the social sciences—much more frequently than prospective social or natural scientists abandon their initial goals. What pushes Harvard students away from the humanities?

The report lists several familiar explanations: The humanities have little to contribute in an age of global economic competition; the humanities fail to provide preparation for careers; the bookish humanities have been rendered obsolete by the waves of technological change, etc.

While the report gives those accounts their due, at times rebutting them and at times conceding points, it suddenly turns the tables, exhorting humanities faculty members to recognize that the crisis may have endogenous causes: It’s not always someone else’s fault.

If, however, humanists are the cause of their own crisis, they ought to be able to generate solutions. Mapping the Future is an appeal to the humanities to take responsibility: Humanist, heal thyself. The report proposes a variety of reforms, but some are more striking than others—and may provoke resistance in an academy attached to business as usual.

The report points first to a research culture of excessive specialization, which deters the “formation of truly educated citizens.” At stake is the established model of the research university, in which the primacy of research has harmed the core teaching mission of the humanities. The priority of research has rendered the humanities disciplines too restrictive, and the language of specialized humanities research has become “largely impenetrable to a wider public.”

Instead, higher education should reassert the importance of teaching, systematically undervalued by institutions defined by research. A consistent revalorization of teaching should also have profound—and to my mind, salutary—ramifications beyond undergraduate education. It should make us consider graduate-student training, faculty hiring, and the criteria used for promotion.

The focus on teaching also implies shifting control of undergraduate education away from research-driven departments, defined by research agenda and disciplinary limits, to other bodies in the university more committed to student learning. That lays the groundwork for the specific curricular recommendations—gateway courses, seminars, course clusters—that are promising, although none is truly new. All, however, imply shifting curricular leadership outside of departments.

Bolder, however, than the rejection of departmental tunnel vision is the report’s call to revisit the canon. It’s not that the report tries to reopen the culture wars. Far from it: Harvard’s analysis does not mandate a great-books list, and it certainly does not eliminate room for revisionism and diversity.

Yet the report does suggest that the marginalization of the great works of the erstwhile canon has impoverished the humanities, making them less attractive to students. To correct that would involve “teaching only works whose transmission in our classrooms we consider vitally important.” That is a direct challenge to the canon critics, even if the report refrains from naming those important works.

The report rightly rejects the claim that the humanities are worth studying for their own sake, with no regard for vocational opportunities. It is indeed disconcerting when tenured faculty members, enjoying a job security found nowhere else in the work force, urge students, undergraduate or graduate, not to worry about finding employment. The point is not to turn humanities education into a vocational-training program but to recognize that the competencies acquired in the study of the humanities are transferable to a wide range of careers. Humanists should embrace that argument.

Yet the argument has implications for pedagogy that the report does not spell out. The competency argument necessitates, I believe, a rethinking of humanities education to move from a text-centered to a student-centered pedagogy. If the humanities are to pursue goals such as strengthening students’ language skills, enhancing their analytic capacities, and deepening their ability to understand, then the quality of the teaching enterprise has to be reconceived in terms of strategies for student learning, rather than exclusively with regard to the coverage of works and themes.

To heal the humanities, we have to rethink syllabus design and classroom practices with reference to student learning; faculty research projects should have only a subordinate role.

The most explosive element in the report’s diagnosis of the humanities’ malaise is embedded in its map of three competing interpretive traditions: philology, with its critical hermeneutics of suspicion, a philosophical aesthetics of appreciation, and a romanticism of identity and engagement. This masterful but highly stylized intellectual history demonstrates the diversity of the humanities—a big tent, so to speak—but it also allows the report to assert, with all due caution, that the disproportionate visibility of the critical and suspicious strand, with its exclusive focus on culture’s complicity in domination, has contributed to the decline in student interest.

The report struggles with this point but eventually makes its way through to an unexpected confession: “Those of us committed to criticism as critique might recognize a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy. Among the ways we sometimes alienate students from the humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in our classrooms.”

These four points, to my mind the important ones in the report, make up a remarkable agenda to render the humanities more attractive to undergraduates: eliminating excessive specialization and theoretical jargon, while reaffirming the priority of teaching over research; revisiting the canon, understood as an evolving selection of worthwhile works; taking student career concerns seriously by building transferable competencies, especially in language skills, broadly understood; and recognizing that the humanities have more to offer than adversary criticism, such as opportunities for aesthetic pleasure and positive identifications with cultures and traditions.

Mapping the Future provides a reasonable plan for the humanities to overcome some self-inflicted damage; it remains to be seen if humanists will succeed in putting it into effect.

Russell A. Berman is a professor of the humanities at Stanford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a past president of the Modern Language Association.

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