Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.
Not long ago I was invited to a small university in California to talk about the crisis in the humanities. When I arrived I was greeted by a professor of philosophy, faculty members from the literature department, and a historian. We sat together in a small classroom overlooking a peaceful, park-like setting. But they all seemed worried, so I asked them how things were at their university.
“Well,” they said, “things were not going well.” Student enrollment in humanities courses and the number of majors were down. The president had reeled in a multimillion dollar gift, but none of it would be earmarked for the humanities. You could hear in their tense voices that they felt they were living in crisis. I pointed out that they might feel like there was a crisis at their university, but the humanities outside of the university were not in crisis–in fact, they were in great demand. It was an awkward thing to say, but there really is a gulf between the fate of the humanities inside and outside academia.
We have been hearing for a long time that the humanities in academia are threatened. A 2009 survey fueled by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicators database pointed out that the humanities share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the heyday of the mid-to-late ‘60s. Facing this bad news, one has to ask if anything can be done.
One of the keys to reversing the trend is to take our case to the American people. This is what the American Academy did with its follow-up report, called the Heart of the Matter. When I brought up the Heart of the Matter report to the faculty members, however, it was met with derision and snickers. It seemed that while they bemoaned the reduction in their enrollments and majors, they did not want to seek help beyond their inward-looking traditions. Maybe their negative reaction was because the report was widely covered in the popular media, gaining more coverage for the humanities than I have seen in the past ten years. Perhaps it was because Richard Brodhead, the co-chair of the report, appeared on the Colbert Report. It seemed these academics would accept help only from what they narrowly considered to be scholars.
I would argue to skeptical academics that we in the humanities cannot afford to dismiss efforts to bridge the gap between the life of the humanities in academia and beyond its walls. Though the number of majors within humanities departments may be on the decline, the way to deal with this is not to look inward, but outward, to reach beyond ivy walls to surrounding communities to demonstrate why the humanities matter. My experience has taught me that there is both a need and a desire, one might even say a hunger, in many communities for the knowledge and wisdom we all know the humanities offer.
I have watched Iraqi Chaldeans in San Diego working to create a film that explores what it means to be a refugee and to give up so much to live in the US. I have witnessed people at the Riverside County Library in Coachella Valley, California, in lively discussion of “A Litany for Survival” by poet Audre Lorde, contemplating the irrepressible question of what it means to live the good life. I have talked to staff at the Veterans Affairs Hospital of Central California, which serves 35,000 veterans, who come together to read about and analyze in human terms the traumatizing experiences of war. There are hundreds of institutions like these (museums, libraries, schools, and community-based nonprofit organizations) across California and the nation that I know are eager to benefit from the knowledge and facilitation of scholars and engagement from universities in their searches for meaning.
Sadly, and despite this evident hunger for humanities content and discussion, I find an academy that is frequently reluctant to support and reward the engagement of scholars and its students beyond the walls of tradition and sometimes impenetrable scholarship. Is there some way to kick start a healthy building of bridges between academia and society? Perhaps there is. Scholars and their institutions are not alone nor as lonely as they might now feel.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) was founded on the belief that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” The agency promotes access to the humanities for people of all backgrounds no matter where they are located. The founders of NEH urged that the organization encourage “the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.” We must always ask whether it is doing enough to connect the people of the United States with the power of the humanities. And whether it is doing enough to connect communities with academia.
Although faculties in academia are skeptical and discouraged today, there is an opportunity to use the energy, will, and hopes of students to turn around the fateful crisis of humanities departments. This might mean changing the way we educate humanities students. I recently spoke to humanities graduate students from across the University of California system about their future work prospects. The conversation was tough because many of them had been focused on getting their doctorates, so they had been removed from the broader workforce for four to ten years. Sure, they had developed critical thinking and writing skills, as well as the ability to consider a diversity of opinions and ask the right questions. However, when an employer reads their resume, the person who had been in graduate school will often be seen as overqualified, or worse, out of touch. We know that only 40% of these graduate students will go on to tenure-track positions, the rest, a great majority, will do other things. Can we see this as an advantage rather than a failure?
Why can’t we in the humanities acknowledge this massive change and construct systems that prepare our students for what a majority of them will do – work outsides the confines of academia? In other words, why can’t we organize humanities education so that our best and brightest learn about work outside of academia – at a state humanities council, public television or radio station, a high tech start-up geared to learning, a museum or theater company? Why are we in the humanities reluctant to connect outside of the university?
The fate of the humanities is in our hands. Communities are doing their part to host humanities programs to increase individual and communal understanding of the power of the humanities. Academia should do its part to support interested individuals, scholars, and students working beyond the walls of academia. Without this support, both society and the humanities will suffer. With communities and academia working together, we can reach forward to a new age of the humanities in our society. This is the kind of effort that makes life worth living and will ultimately save the humanities.
~ Ralph Lewin is former President & CEO, Cal Humanities
 National Endowment for the Humanities, National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (PL 89-209).