The Magazine

Does Harvard Hate Humanities?

No, but it doesn’t understand them.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Study of the humanities has never been more important to the welfare of the nation. Information whizzes by at breakneck speed. The contest between conservative and progressive visions of government’s scope and aim in a free society implicates rival understandings of human nature. The ways of life of people in far-off lands have direct impact on our prosperity and security.

How many of them started out studying the humanities?

How many of them started out studying the humanities?

Landov

Amidst the flux and uncertainty, the humanities​—​literature, history, religion, philosophy, and the fine arts​—​teach us to slow down, savor, and ponder; they illuminate the intricacies of human nature, the age-old patterns into which behavior falls, along with the infinite nuances of personality; and they reveal the cultural roots of our civilization, the humanity of other civilizations, and the inhumanity to which all civilizations, to one degree or another, are prone. The humanities uncover, preserve, and transmit the treasures of the past; provide a refined language and enduring standards for describing and evaluating the present; and nourish our imagination of the future’s possibilities. The humanities teach us who we are and help us to determine the kind of human beings we wish to become. They anchor and enliven our freedom.

Therefore, Harvard University is to be commended for seeking with a new report to address “the troubled state of the humanities.” The report, “The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future,” was composed by a committee of Harvard professors co-chaired by professor of English Homi Bhabha, who is also director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, chair of philosophy Sean Kelly, and professor of English James Simpson. With members drawn from a variety of departments, the committee sought to articulate “the possibilities and promise of the Humanities at the undergraduate level in Harvard College.” 

And so the committee does, in a rarefied idiom that is at points eloquent and probing but will prove a strain for those not immersed in contemporary academic controversies and not accustomed to professors’ penchant for abstraction and abstruseness. Unfortunately, lacking a solid understanding of liberal education, the committee’s report fails to state clearly the causes of the humanities’ decline, the consequences for students and the nation, and the cure.

The Harvard report was occasioned by statistics that reveal a precipitous deterioration in undergraduate interest in the humanities. Over the last 44 years, the report notes, the share of humanities majors nationwide has dropped by half, from 14 percent to 7 percent of all college degrees awarded. This drop may be attributable, as James Taranto argued in the Wall Street Journal, to the boom in college enrollment over that same period, which has brought to universities many more students who value a bachelor’s degree for the job it will secure rather than for the love of learning it will fulfill. But that does not explain the abandonment of the humanities by Harvard students during that time.

At Harvard, the decline (including history majors) over the last 60 years has been from 36 percent to 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees. Moreover, while 27 percent of entering freshmen in 2006 expressed an intention of majoring in the humanities, by 2012 the comparable figure was 18 percent.

Perhaps most alarmingly for the humanities at Harvard,

Over the last 8 years, more than half of students who as pre-Freshmen indicate an intention to concentrate in a Humanities concentration end up in a different division. 50% graduate in a social science, 27% in either Government (11%), Psychology (8%), or Economics (8%). Students stating an intention to concentrate in a Humanities discipline are much less loyal to that intention at concentration declaration (57% exodus) than students stating an intention to concentrate in a social science (19% exodus).

What does Harvard do to drive from the humanities so many students who arrive in Cambridge aiming to concentrate in them?

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