When is a crisis not a crisis?

For a recent job interview, I was asked to talk about the ‘crisis in the humanities’ and what libraries can do to take advantage of the opportunities created by new technologies.

I initially stopped at the phrase ‘crisis in the humanities.’ I’d heard it before and had a vague idea of what it meant, but I wanted to be sure. So I did what people do these days—I googled it.

Googling brought up these articles and many more, with dates ranging from the 1950s through 2014:

&c.; &c. …

Defining the crisis

In Blaine Greteman’s 2014 article in the New Republic, entitled ‘It’s the End of the Humanities as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),’ he outlines a history of the crisis from 1621. Other articles trace the crisis even farther back.

In modern times, the crisis has been defined, in part, as:

  • Declining number of students majoring in humanities fields;
  • Reduced support from (and for) grant-funding agencies and foundations that have traditionally supported humanities scholarship;
  • Lack of institutional support within universities and colleges;
  • And, in general, a lack of visibility and lack of perceived value for the humanities in the society at large.

Let’s look at each of these components.

Fewer humanities majors

In a 2013 editorial in the New York Times, Scott Saul, an Associate Professor of English at UC-Berkeley, summarized the data on humanities majors over the past half a century.

Although there has recently been a sharp decrease in the number of English, language and history majors at prestigious colleges and universities, the number of majors in humanities fields at other schools has held steady over the past 20 years at between 9.8 and 10.6 percent of total bachelor’s degrees awarded. This is somewhat counterintuitive. Given criticism of the humanities being fields that attract elite students from wealthy, highly educated families, the number of majors at prestigious schools should at least be holding steady, in comparison with those at other schools with more economically diverse student bodies. But this seems not to be the case, and later we’ll go into why this might be true.

Reduced funding

Another component of the crisis is reduced support from–and for–grant-funding agencies and foundations that have traditionally supported humanities scholarship.

Certainly after the 2008 recession there were severe cuts in humanities and arts funding, with the money that was available going toward much-needed human services projects and organizations.

And a 2014 report on public funding for the arts by Grantmakers in the Arts, a coalition of public and private organizations that fund arts and culture, calculated a decline in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past 20 years of 26 percent.

This reduction, while sobering, cannot be truly classified as a crisis. While funding levels have not kept pace with inflation over the past 20 years, there was an absolute increase of 19% in funding from 1994 to 2014. There is, of course, short-term volatility due to cycles of growth and recession in the larger economy, and corresponding changes in the needs of human services funding to help people get by in hard times.

But funding levels that were reduced due to the 2008 recession, for example, have gradually increased since 2012. Funding tends to ebb and flow with the economy, but also tends to be restored when times are better.

Lack of institutional support within academia 

The third component of the crisis is the lack of institutional support within universities and colleges.

In the wake of the 2008 recession a number of colleges and universities eliminated departments in order to reduce costs. Not all the departments have been in the humanities, but many have—especially language departments. I’ll cite just three examples. In 2010 SUNY-Albany cut several language programs as well as their theater department. Emory University announced the elimination of several departments in 2012. The University of Maine cut departments in 2010 and again in 2014.

This recent trend toward eliminating departments and programs to respond to economic pressures, citing in part low enrollment or number of majors, is disturbing. Hard decisions often have to be made to keep an institution thriving and financially viable. But on what basis should decisions be made? I believe that cuts should be made that have a minimal impact on the institution’s ability to fulfill its mission. And the analysis of metrics such as enrollment numbers or the number of majors, except as an indication of the concerns of the culture or the times, is not a valid measure of the impact of a department on the institution’s mission.

Mission statements

The exception is when the primary mission is specifically to provide a vocational education. Is that true of the three institutions I’ve cited? Here are excerpts from the first lines of each of their mission statements:

SUNY: “The mission of the state university system shall be to provide to the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary programs …”

Emory University‘s mission is to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.”

The University of Maine advances learning and discovery through excellence and innovation in undergraduate and graduate academic programs while addressing the complex challenges and opportunities of the 21st century through research-based knowledge.”

Providing vocational or professional training is mentioned or at least implied in each statement, but it is not the primary mission of any of these institutions.

The responsibility of university and college administrators to defend the study of the humanities is not an easy one. They have to make the case to trustees, alumni, and in some cases lawmakers and the public, most of whom operate in a very different environment in organizations with very different missions. It is tempting to make decisions based on seemingly objective metrics such as number of majors or course enrollment.

But the fact is that universities, colleges—and libraries—are in the business of studying and supporting study of fields that are important, but not necessarily popular or immediately useful. And we who work in them and understand their value are responsible for providing administrators with arguments for supporting the humanities, in the face of metrics that are powerful, but miss the point.

Feeling undervalued

The fourth and last component of the crisis is the lack of visibility and lack of perceived value for the humanities in the society at large.

This I think is less true than we fear it is. Yes, there are people who would like universities and libraries to demonstrate a return on investment in terms of the earnings of their graduates and/or the money brought in by researchers, and administrators who would like to require the same of every academic department within their institution.

Implicit in this argument are two assumptions:

  • The purpose of higher education is to prepare students to make a good living.
  • The objective of most students attending a college or university is to get ahead financially.

Both have some truth to them, but are flawed at a fundamental level. The first might be more precisely worded as:

One collateral benefit of a college degree—more and better job prospects—has led more students to enter college; therefore colleges should focus on preparing students for high-paying careers.

College is now the avenue for people to improve their lives, which includes improving their financial standing. Absolutely. But, given the profound transformation many of us have experienced from our education—a transformation that goes far beyond a bigger paycheck–it does a disservice to today’s students to limit the benefit they derive from a college education to the financial benefit they will receive.

And it is an insult to those students to believe that most of them have no other objective than to make a good living after college. They have the same hunger that we had (and have) for a more profound understanding of the world and the discovery of a deeper connection with others.

‘Twas ever thus … 

The perceived lack of respect and support for humanities learning and scholarship goes back hundreds of years. (Maybe thousands of years, if you go back to Thales of Miletus and the olive press story.) In the 17th century, Robert Burton complained in The Anatomy of Melancholy that whereas in the past kings and nobles valued and practiced scholarship, modern kings were not learned and did not value the learning of others. In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon presented the second volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the Duke of Gloucester, who purportedly said, “Another damn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”

As the 19th century progressed and education became increasingly democratic, there was a corresponding increase in emphasis on a practical education—one that would help students make their way and be successful in the work world, where they would spend a large number of their waking hours.

And in the 20th and 21st centuries, as higher education has become accessible to more and more people, the call for a similar emphasis on career and professional preparation has been made again and again. Of course it would be—the vast majority of us have to spend much of our time, energy and thought in making a living. It is an important and vital part of our lives.

So the question is not why the humanities are in crisis (if they are in crisis); it is why have they endured through the enormous changes in society and in education over the past several hundred years?

‘In the world’ v. ‘Of the world’

In Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Life Without Principle, he states:

“If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events that make the news transpire—thinner than the paper on which it is printed—then these things fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them.”

All of us—without exception—spend much of our time ‘in’ the world—we commute to work, do chores around the house, volunteer, raise our children, etc. We live in the quotidian, workaday world.

But some people—a few—are entirely ‘of the world’–they live and move and have their being in the everyday. For them making a living, making an impression, (even) making a difference; IS the world, is everything. And these are the people who think the humanities are a luxury, because there is no immediate utility they can see to it (except perhaps in the sense of creating the impression of learning or profundity that is of some advantage to them).

Fortunately very few of us are completely consumed by the requirements, the distractions and the allure of the everyday world. People seek meaning, connection and fundamental truth in very different ways—through religion, music, love, art, and study. Most of us—no matter where we come from, how humble our background, how much or little money we have—seek a deeper meaning to our lives that brings together all of our activities and pursuits, and that connects us to others and to our history.

The fortunate 10%

So let’s return to a point I made earlier, that in most schools the number of humanities majors have held steady at about 10% for the past twenty years. It is a small but significant number, and it is one indication of the enduring value of the humanities for those who hunger for a deeper meaning and more solid foundation to their lives.

That 10%, and many, many others who major in more ‘practical’ studies but take and love the courses they take in the humanities—as well as those who do not have the opportunity to go to college but love history, or art, or music, or poetry—all of us keep the humanities alive. Among us are decision-makers in business and government who understand the value of the humanities and the liberal arts, and entrepreneurs who are happy to contribute to the school, the museum, or the library that preserves and celebrates the values by which they live their lives. We who make our living in the humanities are the tip of the iceberg—the vanguard, the fortunate few who are able to work with these ideas and materials every day, and to explore them in depth.

Yes, there are some like Peter Cohan, who published an article in Forbes in 2012 entitled: “To Boost Post-College Prospects, Cut Humanities Departments.” They see no value to education other than to train workers for jobs or professions, and believe that education’s only value is economic and that studies with no immediate financial or societal utility should be abandoned. Whenever these arguments are made, that’s when we need to go into action, boldly and confidently making the case for the humanities. We may feel as though we are alone in making the argument. But we have the ear and support of many who value what we do, but are not as privileged as we are to spend our lives doing it.

What’s a research library to do?

How can academic and research libraries continue to support the humanities and the people who love them?

Continue to acquire, preserve and celebrate rare books and other materials, in their original form, that are the foundation of humanities study and scholarship. Humanities fields, without exception, enlarge us and bring us together with others across the world and throughout history, to answer questions such as: What makes us human? What do we have in common? What challenges face all of us, and how can we work together to solve them? Our collections illuminate answers to these questions for to those who read and study them.

When possible without damage to unique, original materials, digitize them and make them freely available online, thus making them discoverable and accessible to millions around the world who are not able to physically come to the library. The primary mission of most libraries is to serve their local users. But the broader mission of libraries and librarians is preserve and make accessible the scholarly and cultural record, in as intact a form as possible. Digitization makes it possible to bring these collections together in new ways and make them available, at least virtually, to everyone. Collaboration is what libraries have always done, and technology makes it possible to collaborate in ways that enhance our services and reach.

Use social media to break down the barriers between users and library collections. Social media is a powerful tool not only for the widespread dissemination of library collections, but for breaking down social and economic barriers. People who love history, art and music are sometimes intimidated by large libraries, archives and special collections. They hesitate even to enter the building, feeling like they do not belong or would not be welcome here. (We know that’s not true, but the feeling is there.) But outlets like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest and others break down those barriers and allow people in to us who would not come into the library even if they live close by. They can interact with us virtually and with others about the rich collections and programs that the library has to offer. Once they are familiar with and comfortable within the virtual library, we can entice them into the building to see the original books and materials, and allow them to have that amazing and profound experience of a book, manuscript, map, or work of art that is hundreds of years old and is history as it was made.

And finally, we few, we happy few, who are privileged to work in the humanities—in libraries, humanities fields, and the arts—our calling includes an obligation to be ‘happy warriors;’ to continually make the case (and the case will continually need to be made) of the worthiness of the humanities, of their higher value in demonstrating what connects us, what common challenges we face, and what links us to all of humanity.

So when is a crisis not a crisis?

When it is part and parcel of the practice and study of the humanities. In this sense the crisis in the humanities will never be over. And it is a serious threat—particularly in a culture such as ours which is so ‘of the world.’ But in arguing—and arguing hard—for the value of the humanities, it will ever be fresh and living for us and for others.


About Pat Tully

Librarian exploring effective leadership, local history and community service.
This entry was posted in Crisis in the humanities, Liberal arts, Libraries. Bookmark the permalink.

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