Making the Case for the Humanities

Moving Beyond Op-Eds

W. Robert Connor suggests five alternative -- and more effective -- ways to talk about the value of the humanities.

April 22, 2016

A friend who teaches classics at a fine liberal arts college told me that she had met the president of the institution walking across campus. He greeted her, and they chatted for a few seconds. Then the president asked, “How can we justify putting resources into Ancient Greek 101 where the enrollment is eight, while the enrollment in Economics 101 is 189?” My friend reported she had become flustered because she was unprepared for that question. She told me she believed that we needed to be doing a better job of making the case for the classics, the humanities and liberal education in general.

Wait a minute, I thought. That’s his job, or ought to be. Her job is to advance and transmit knowledge in a core humanistic discipline. What’s his game? Intimidation? Making himself look good because, in fact, he was not about to let the teaching of ancient Greek end on his watch after more than two centuries on that campus? Or was he genuinely asking for help?

Still, I thought, she is right: we do need to improve the understanding of why studying the humanities is important for today’s students (and administrators). Maybe, I thought, I should pitch in by writing an op-ed piece for Inside Higher Ed making the case for these fields.

But the phrase “making the case” stuck in my craw. It sounded so courtroom, so defense attorney, or rather so much like the message behind a now-terminated presidential candidacy: “Trust me, we know best.” It is surely self-serving.

After all, like most people who write such pieces, I have made my living on the humanities. Of course, I want them to flourish, but who will pay attention to an obviously self-interested spokesperson? Preaching to the choir may win praise from like-minded colleagues but will never be seen by the people who most need to rethink the assumptions that shape contemporary higher education: that college is a commodity sold to student-consumers, it’s all about “workforce readiness,” its goal is “return on investment” and only the STEM disciplines can guarantee success after graduation. These unexamined premises pose the most insidious threat, not just to humanists, but to all students over their lifetimes.

So it’s worth brainstorming about alternative strategies. Here are a half dozen possibilities. A brief brainstorming session with friends and colleagues can, I am sure, produce other, perhaps better ones. However, these are, as we say nowadays, cost-efficient -- that is, they do not take a lot of time away from teaching and scholarship. The effort is focused on helping people outside academe do the heavy lifting. Alumni, civic and business leaders, parents, and undergraduates themselves have more credibility than professional humanists, and they can surprise you by their articulate enthusiasm. And, yes, they can have more impact than another op-ed piece “making the case.”

First: Call attention to what is already available. Many important studies and some eloquent advocacy for the humanities have appeared in recent years: a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University’s 2013 report “Mapping the Future: The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College,” and “Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education” from the Council of Independent Colleges, to name just a few. Most of these, however, have had a short shelf life after an initial flurry of attention, and they deserve a much wider readership.

That’s even more likely to be the case with shorter pieces. Here’s one example: Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, published a powerful op-ed piece, “College Is Not a Commodity,” in The Washington Post not long ago, attacking one of the clichés that are so prevalent these days. The essay is an evergreen that merits a second wave of circulation on social media. In fact, it should be handed to any college administrator who seems to talk commodity talk when they should be thinking hard about how best to educate today’s students.

Second: Check the departmental website. Does it really address the questions that parents and students are likely to have about majoring in the field? Ask some students to grade the content. They’ll probably want to see if claims about the desirability of such a major are backed up by strong evidence and clear argumentation.

Douglas MacLean, a professor in the philosophy department at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got thinking about that after Marco Rubio made his famous pronouncement, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers.” Answering that claim led to collecting data, as MacLean explained in a Time magazine article, some of which was posted on the department’s webpage. MacLean notes, “Studies have shown philosophy majors have outperformed nearly every other major on the law school aptitude test, the GREs and the GMAT, the admission test for business schools. (They also outearn welders.)”

Third: Ask former students to reflect on their educational experience in the humanities and then disseminate their observations. One way to get the discussion started is to provide the link to comments by students on other campuses, such as the remarks in Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece “College, Poetry and Purpose.” Ask if the experiences cited there match their own. Then put students’ own stories on the departmental website and out on social media. Ask, don’t tell. It doesn’t all have to be glory hallelujah! Find out what graduates working outside the academic humanities have found valuable in their education, then help their message be heard. And keep the email addresses for the following strategy.

Fourth: Put the alumni office to work. Vanessa Ryan, associate dean of the graduate school at Brown University, describes a plan that worked well there: “In 2012, I organized a TEDx [talk] on life, learning and liberal education, bringing back eight alumni from different career paths, including a doctor, an engineer, a film producer and a person in finance. It also features two current Brown faculty members and a current Brown undergraduate, selected through a student challenge event. Each speaker reflected in short talks on the value of liberal education. You can find the videos here and our website here.” Alumni Relations officers love events of this sort and can help organize (and pay for) them.

Fifth: Set clear responsibilities in institutional leaders’ jobs. When selecting a senior administrator -- a dean, provost, chancellor or president -- ask if the job description includes the ability to articulate the value of a broad liberal education. If not, why not? The same questions apply to incentive packages that are increasingly part of senior-level compensation. Making this criterion explicit early on gives leverage once the person is in place -- and especially when performance reviews are conducted.

Finally: Hijack Parents’ Day. Parents are understandably worried about the hollowing out of the economy and the horror stories they hear of students with huge debt loads who can’t find a decent job. Again, both data and descriptions of the actual lives of recent graduates can help allay their fears.

Most important, however, is a carefully structured dialogue among parents themselves. Make sure they have before them the 2014 Purdue-Gallup Index report, a study of more than 30,000 college graduates, showing what aspects of education make a positive difference in the workplace and the community. That report should move the conversation from nervous chatter about debt loads and return on investment to an exploration of what parents really want for their kids and what can best build satisfaction over the long run.

Once you introduce the idea of satisfaction in life, it should be possible to problematize (as we humanists like to say) assumptions about success and rewards. Such discussions play out on the humanities’ home turf: many humanists have thought long and hard about discourses and how they change over time. Here’s a chance to move from theory to practice. That’s what is most needed right now: not making the case but developing richer and more meaningful ways of thinking about what a college education should be.


W. Robert Connor has served as director of the National Humanities Center and president of the Teagle Foundation. He blogs at


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