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As interest fades in the humanities, colleges worry

By
November 02, 2013 |

By Tamar Lewin
STANFORD — On Stanford University’s sprawling campus, where a long palm-lined drive leads to manicured quads, humanities professors produce highly regarded scholarship on Renaissance French literature and the philosophy of language.

They have generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is 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.

With Stanford’s reputation in technology, it is no wonder that computer science is the university’s most popular major, and that there are no longer any humanities programs among the top five. But with the recession having helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation, administrators are concerned.

“We have 11 humanities departments that are quite extraordinary, and we want to provide for that faculty,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid.

The concern that the humanities are being eclipsed by science goes far beyond Stanford.

At some public universities, where funding is eroding, humanities are being pared. In September, for example, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania announced that it was closing its sparsely populated degree programs in German, philosophy, and world languages and culture.

At elite universities, such departments are safe but wary. Harvard had a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last decade, a recent report found, and most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields. So the university is looking to reshape its first-year humanities courses to sustain student interest.

Princeton, in an effort to recruit more humanities students, offers a program for high school students with a strong demonstrated interest in humanities — an idea Stanford, too, adopted last year.

“Both inside the humanities and outside, people feel that the intellectual firepower in the universities is in the sciences, that the important issues that people of all sorts care about, like inequality and climate change, are being addressed not in the English departments,” said Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia University professor who writes about higher education.

The future of the humanities has been a hot topic this year, both in academia and the high-culture media. Some commentators sounded the alarm based on federal data showing that nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970. As others quickly pointed out, that decline occurred between 1970, the high point, and 1985, not in recent years.

Still, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report this spring noting the decreased funding for humanities and calling for new initiatives to ensure that they are not neglected amid the growing money and attention devoted to science and technology.

In The New Yorker in August, the writer Adam Gopnik argued for the importance of English majors. The New Republic ran an article, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” by Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist. A few weeks later came a testy rebuttal, “Crimes Against Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, rejecting Dr. Pinker’s views on the ascendancy of science.

“In the scholarly world, cognitive sciences has everybody’s ear right now, and everybody is thinking about how to relate to it,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor. “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year? But everybody’s reading science books.”

Many distinguished humanities professors feel their status deflating. Anthony Grafton, a Princeton history professor who started that university’s humanities recruiting program, said he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”

At Stanford, the humanists cannot help noticing the primacy of science and technology.

“You look at this university’s extraordinary science and technology achievements, and if you wonder what will happen to the humanities, you can be threatened, or you can be invigorated,” said Franco Moretti, the director of the Stanford Literary Lab. “I’m choosing to be invigorated.”

At Stanford, digital humanities get some of that vigor: In “Teaching Classics in the Digital Age,” graduate students use Rap Genius, a popular website for annotating lyrics from rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem, to annotate Homer and Virgil. In a Literary Lab project on 18th-century novels, English students study a database of nearly 2,000 early books to tease out when “romances,” “tales” and “histories” first emerged as novels, and what the different terms signified. And in “Introduction to Critical Text Mining,” English, history and computer majors use R software to break texts into chunks to analyze novels and Supreme Court rulings.

Dan Edelstein, the Stanford professor who ran this summer’s high school program, said that while it is easy to spot the winners at science fairs and robotics competitions, students who excel in humanities get less acclaim and are harder to identify.

“I got the sense from them that it’s not cool to be a nerd in high school, unless you’re a STEM nerd,” he said, using the term for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

True, said Rachel Roberts, one of his summer students.

“I live in Seattle, surrounded by Amazon and Google and Microsoft,” said Roberts, a history buff. “One of the best things about the program, that made us all breathe a sigh of relief, was being in an environment where no one said: “Oh, you’re interested in humanities? You’ll never get a job.”

For university administrators, finding the right mix of science and humanities is difficult, given the enormous imbalance in outside funding.

“There’s an overwhelming push from the administration at most universities to build up the STEM fields, both because national productivity depends in part on scientific productivity and because there’s so much federal funding for science,” said John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, since the recession — probably because of the recession — there has been a profound shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground.

“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” said Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

While humanities majors often have trouble landing their first job, their professors say that over the long term, employers highly value their critical thinking skills.

Parents, even more than students, often focus single-mindedly on employment. Jill Lepore, the chairwoman of Harvard’s history and literature program, tells of one young woman who came to her home, quite enthusiastic, for an event for students interested in the program, and was quickly deluged with messages from her parents. “They kept texting her: leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain,” she said.

Some professors flinch when they hear colleagues talking about the need to prepare students for jobs.

“I think that’s conceding too quickly,” said Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

His university had 394 English majors last year, down from 501 when he arrived in 1984, but Professor Edmundson said he does not fret about the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.”

But for students worrying about their own future, Shakespeare can seem an obstacle to getting on with their lives.

“Students who are anxious about finishing their degree, and avoiding debt, sometimes see the breadth requirements as getting in their way,” said Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of UC Berkeley.

Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.

“We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors,” he said.

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