In a remarkable new report, “Mapping the Future,” a committee of humanities professors at Harvard admits for the first time that the predominant cause of the decline in the study of humanities in America is – humanities professors! Exactly what reformers have been arguing for decades. (See, for example, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s devastating 2001 book, Who Killed Homer?)

The decline in humanities has been precipitous in recent decades, not at Harvard alone but across America. “Between 1966 and 2010, Bachelor’s Degree Completions in the Humanities halved nationwide, falling from 14 to 7% of all degrees taken.”

The report demonstrates that this decline has nothing to do with financial contraction, nor with a fall in the status of the humanities in the wider culture. At Harvard at least, the problem lies with students who began with the intention of majoring in the humanities but who became disillusioned by the experience of taking actual courses in those subjects. In other words, it is the humanities professors who have been driving students out of those fields and into competitors (mostly, the social sciences, like psychology and political science). 

The report’s authors identify five problems with the teaching of humanities in America’s elite colleges and universities, all of which will be familiar to regular readers of

1. Overemphasis on research and the supervision of graduate students, with subsequent neglect of undergraduate teaching.

2. Overspecializiation of faculty leading to excessive narrowness in the scope of undergraduate courses.

3. The abandonment of any consistency in the use of “Great Books.”

4. The one-sidedness of the ubiquitous method of “critique,” focusing exclusively on unearthing the instruments of oppression in the works of the past.

5. The stifling of dissent and the pervasive atmosphere of anxiety resulting from perceived “political correctnes” as the operating norm.

This is a nearly complete list. The only thing I would add is the greater prevalence of grade inflation in the humanities, which discourages brighter and more ambitious students by giving them no opportunity to demonstrate their excellence.

What’s most striking about the report is that it is the only contemporary example I know of in which American professors actually engage in self-criticism:

“Faced with that exodus, we might do otherwise than to blame someone else, and not only because blame is never a smart way to persuade anyone to be an ally. We might instead engage in self-scrutiny, by asking ourselves whether or not we are failing to address urgent questions about their world that students feel will be answered by social sciences.”

Just so.

“That experiment might profitably involve reaffirmation of the generalist tradition of undergraduate teaching. We might reflect that we have tended to emphasize specialist knowledge (Wissenschaft) over the formation of truly educated citizens (Bildung), a division built deep into the shape of our disciplines over the century and more of the modern disciplines. We have, that is, possibly become too specialized, allowing the research culture of our faculty and graduate constituencies to dominate the general needs of the undergraduate. Can one effectively specialize without a frame of general knowledge in the first place?”

Indeed. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

“We are capable of forgetting the simple truth that “the main work of the Humanities is to ensure that the [great] books are placed in the hands of each incoming wave of students and carried back out to sea.” This might not necessarily mean restricting ourselves to works considered great by tradition; but it will mean teaching only works whose transmission in our classrooms we consider vitally important.”

Of course, we might not want to restrict ourselves only to books “considered great by tradition.” However, that is always a very good place to start, especially if we are to avoid what C. S. Lewis rightly labeled the “chronological bigotry” of assuming that the present generation has a monopoloy on insight.

“Humanities over the past thirty years has been a project of critique: of revealing the extent to which culture serves power, the ways domination and imperialism underwrite cultural production, and the ways the products of culture rehearse and even produce injustice. This project of critique, built deep into our tradition, is not and cannot be completed; it remains a key component of the undergraduate and graduate study of literature, art, or music. In addressing the decline in Humanities concentrators we might, however, need to register the extent to which this critique has already permeated the study of literature and history in secondary education, and to counter a popular image of this kind of work as the sole occupation of the university intellectual.”

Quite well put, although I’m afraid that the “popular image” of the university underestimates, rather than overestimates, the degree to which critique is in fact the sole occupation of the humanities professor.

“Relatedly, 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. Confusingly, these may be ideas that they have heard from their parents around the dinner table, from the pulpit in their houses of worship, or from the media to which they have been exposed. It is not that as teachers we should pretend to speak from some point of uninflected objectivity, but that we should admit and mark the fact that opinions and orientations shape our thinking; acknowledge the fact that intelligent people may disagree; and encourage real debate rather than the answers our undergraduates are smart enough to know we want to hear.”

Amen to all that!