The Humanities Must Unite or Die

Such disciplines have a serious image problem, writes Paul B. Sturtevant, and must argue their worth far more effectively to the public.

November 6, 2015

At a town hall campaign stop in South Carolina, Jeb Bush recently singled out an interesting group for attack: psychology, philosophy and liberal arts majors. He said:

“When a student shows up, they [their college or university] ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that's great, it's important to have liberal arts … but realize, you're going to be working a Chick-fil-A.’”

In the week since, Bush has drawn some well-deserved ire for his remarks. But those of us in the humanities would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that we have a serious image problem. Policy makers like Bush have completely bought into the notion that a STEM degree is the only way to get a good job. If the humanities are going to reclaim the narrative, we have to work together and fight to promote our worth to the public.

We have a lot of catching up to do. For the past 20 years, American education policy has singularly promoted the science, technology, engineering and math fields, which has had a devastating impact on the arts and humanities. As a result, we have seen declining investments in non-STEM fields -- always paltry by contrast -- and shrinking student enrollments. Some universities have shuttered entire programs in the arts and humanities.

Worse, this has promoted a popular idea that degrees in non-STEM and nonbusiness fields are “useless” -- that building tech and selling tech are the only ways to ensure your financial future. This is in spite of mounting numbers of studies that indicate that America does not have a shortage of scientists and that a STEM degree does not ensure a better chance of employment or higher wages.

We in non-STEM fields have been slow to assert ourselves. Not enough of us have argued aggressively for the utility of our discipline, and those who have, such as the History Relevance Campaign and the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (who drafted the excellent “The Heart of the Matter” report), have been fighting largely alone rather than as part of a coordinated, organized movement.

If we are to save our disciplines from irrelevance -- from the realm of the dilettante or hobbyist -- the answer is not to show our complementary utility to STEM fields (as advocates of “STEAM” have). Instead, we must rethink the common threads that our disciplines have to offer and how we present ourselves and our subjects. We should take a page from the STEM advocates’ playbook and argue the case for our disciplines vigorously, both in the public arena and to policy makers at the local, state and national levels.

STEM’s Rise

The focus on science has its roots in a Cold War mentality. In 1957, as the United States rose to the challenge that Sputnik presented, science education leaped to the forefront of the national consciousness. Being “competitive” internationally wasn’t just about economics anymore, it meant defeating the Soviets. This represented an existential crisis that rests at the bottom of our current conversations about STEM.

In the late 1990s, the National Science Foundation rebranded their fields as “STEM.” Since then, proponents of STEM education have presented it as the key to attaining a high-paying job and fixing the economy, and they have found a receptive audience. In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science (now called the Committee on Science, Space and Technology) asked the National Academies to “conduct an assessment of America’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century.” Their solution, which they published in the apocalyptically named “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was an aggressive program of funding for STEM education as a way to ensure “quality jobs” for Americans. President George W. Bush then announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, aimed at promoting a STEM education agenda, which was superseded in 2007 by the America COMPETES Act.

Since the crash of 2008, anxiety about the future -- both personal and national -- has driven people further toward STEM. In addition to reauthorizing the COMPETES act in 2010, President Obama created his own STEM education program, Educate to Innovate. Now, even Sesame Street has created its own STEM education initiatives.

For students, the appeal of STEM education is understandable. College costs have ballooned, and job prospects have shrunk. Shouldering five- and six-figure student debts, they view college pragmatically and are attracted to the myth of a straight path into a lucrative career.

The problem for the arts and humanities is clear. As the American Academy of Sciences wrote in their 2014 funding report, even at its highest (in 2012), “spending for humanities research equaled 0.55% of the amount dedicated to science and engineering RD.” Congressional appropriations for the National Endowment for the Humanities dropped in the 1990s and have stayed flat or decreased since then. Enrollment in arts and humanities majors at leading universities has plummeted. And, heaping on even more financial injury, in 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed “differentiated tuition,” where those studying in STEM fields would pay less than those in disciplines that were not “strategic.”

How to Argue Our Worth Better

The response from scholars in the humanities has been fragmented. Some bristle at conceiving of their disciplines in terms of careers prepared for or skills taught. For them, the value of the arts and humanities is inherent: it leads people to live fuller, better-informed and more satisfying lives.

However, in the face of the fears of our students, their parents and public-policy makers who determine funding priorities -- and the easy answers that STEM proponents provide -- such a position is no longer sufficient. We must have better unifying principles and communicate them simply and forcefully in the public square. We must be better at showing the real, practical applications of what we do and argue not just for the inherent value of our disciplines but also their utility on the job market.

The unifying principle within STEM subjects is that they are, at their cores, focused on objects and objectivity. Though many STEM fields require significant creativity and intuition, they are fundamentally built on an objective approach to problems and solutions derived from data. Technology and engineering are, at their core, about designing and building things -- whether they be bridges or computer systems -- that are intended to perform a function and can be evaluated accordingly.

There is a different unifying principle for most non-STEM disciplines -- among them English, history, politics and civics, languages and literatures, education, the arts, philosophy, psychology and sociology -- which I call the human disciplines. All of the subjects within human disciplines are fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity. Our disciplines not only illustrate esoteric questions of the meaning and purpose of life but are also uniquely well suited to explore questions of how to live and work with other people. In practical terms, if the job requires being able to work with and understand people -- particularly those different from yourself -- these degrees can, and should, make you better suited for it. They promote empathy, and require students to regard problems, and people, with complexity and the understanding that no single answer is right.

These kinds of jobs exist in all walks of life and include CEOs, kindergarten teachers, judges, advertisers, curators, coaches, social workers and many others. They form the linchpin of our society. They not only drive our economy but also make our country a better place to live by having good, well-trained people doing these jobs.

And these jobs are not just lucrative; they offer meaningful work. Understanding how to work with and inspire people makes you better suited to organize those around you toward a common goal, to write, speak and think with power and clarity, and to improve the lives of others. And, in practical terms, these are the jobs that are the least likely to be automated away.

So the onus is on us, within the human disciplines, to organize, to step up in the public arena, to work together -- beyond the ivory towers of our colleges and universities -- to fight for our continued existence. The skills we have to offer are tangible. The jobs we prepare our students for are plentiful and meaningful. We have at least 20 years of catching up to do in making our case to the public, but our disciplines have well prepared us for the task.


Paul B. Sturtevant is a research associate in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution. He received his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies. He regularly writes at The Public Medievalist and tweets at @publicmedieval.


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