How Science Killed the Humanities

Only 15% of Stanford’s students are in the humanities–and the more the humanities try to be like the sciences, the lower that number will go.

According to the New York Times, humanities departments are kind of like a limb cut off from circulation. They have plenty of professors, but they lack that other essential ingredient that universities often look for—students: “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.”

This does not bode well for their future. Institutions like Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and my own home state’s SUNY Albany, have cancelled and closed programs like World Languages and Classics. These might seem peripheral humanities disciplines, but considering that there was a time when Latin Literature would have been studied at Harvard and English Literature was not, all humanities scholars should be troubled by this.

Not even the elite colleges can rest secure. Yes, the humanities professors’ administrative patrons might be able to fund them indefinitely since these departments are comparatively cheap to maintain, but if state schools continue to cancel humanities programs to save money eventually the governorship of elite schools will start asking why they maintain departments in which no one wants to study in the first place.

Things were not always like this. And they probably didn’t have to be like this either. Just one generation ago, 30 percent of college undergraduates majored in the humanities but within a decade that number will probably be below 10 percent. Professors with more conservative views of academia like Bard’s Walter Russell Mead blame the humanities faculty for chasing “academic fads and trends” when they should have been getting back to the basics:

Learning how to learn, how to communicate ideas effectively, how to assess complex situations and develop good strategies for addressing them, and strengthening your character and spiritual life: these are all more vital than ever before in the 21st century. 20th century French literary criticism, faddish race class and gender curriculums, jihads against the tradition canon because there are too many DWEMs (Dead White European Males) in it: those are less useful.

This is fair enough criticism, but the decline of the humanities departments is also an indictment of America’s idea of the university. While I would not endorse all of his ideas on education, Patrick Deneen is right to point out that the humanities declined in large part because they desired to be more like their counterparts in the natural sciences: “By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to a few “experts,” [humanities professors] could emulate the scientific priesthood — betraying the original mandate of the humanities to guide students through the cultural inheritance and teachings of the classic books. Professors in the humanities showed their worth by destroying the thing they studied.”

In doing so, the “research” humanities department was born, built less around exploring essential texts than finding obscure, ignored ones so that one’s research could be as original as any scientific discovery.  The problem with this is not that some texts are ignored for a good reason or that analyzing class warfare in Marvel’s Spiderman franchise is not as important as examining the warrior ethos in the Iliad and the Aeneid. The real problem is that, with the overspecialization of the humanities departments, they have put themselves in a position where they no longer have much to say to students who want to study the humanities but do not want to major in it.

Instead, humanities has become like a training program in itself. Learn to read texts like an academic; study how to look for inconsistencies like a deconstructionist; maybe throw in something on the “digital humanities,” whatever that is; then get shuttled off to a graduate program where you will do more of the same for a decade before you end up hitting the adjunct circuit until you do not retire. (For those who don’t make it to graduate school, there is always advertising.)

But what about the engineering student or the business major who just wants to learn something or other about the history of ideas? Shouldn’t humanities departments have a place for students like that too? The short answer that most humanities professors would give is probably that they do. They would probably cite that they have all kinds of students in their classes.

But teaching is not where the emphasis of the department lies. It is not where departments direct their funding. Tenure committees—when reviewing the work of assistant professors—almost always put research first and teaching abilities second. And elite institutions are beginning to embrace the notion that students do not need to be well-rounded. My own institution requires that all students take one writing course—and that is all.

For the moment, this will probably mean that more humanities departments will be closing down. In the long run, it might mean a world in which people like Steven Pinker or Malcolm Gladwell are socially accepted as the era’s intellectual stars. People are still interested in ideas, but when the humanities departments stop caring what people outside of their discipline think, the technocracy will begin crowning its own men of letters.

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