Hope for Better Times for the Humanities

Last night word spread that one of the nation’s two largest Christian universities had eliminated its entire Philosophy department, giving those seven professors just a few weeks’ notice for a June 30 end to their employment. Sad as that news is, neither the decision nor the means of announcing and implementing it can be all that surprising for anyone who pays much attention to Liberty University. And this is just a particularly egregious case of a larger trend: humanities fields like philosophy, history, literature, languages, and rhetoric seem to be in decline almost everywhere.

I’m afraid the humanities were hit hard by the faculty cuts announced last month at my own Christian university. But given the sheer scale of the cuts they were charged with making, I want to credit our administrators: not only did they structure that process so that everyone affected still has a job for the next academic year, but they resisted the temptation to wipe out entire major programs in humanities.

I’m obviously biased, but I do think that’s an admirable decision. I’m sure it seems baffling to those constituents who think that we should deemphasize fields that fewer students are majoring in and invest more in those professional “pathways” that seem to respond more directly to the needs and preferences of a market economy. But I suspect that preserving meaningful humanities programs and departments will ultimately set up Bethel well in the long run.

Unfortunately, lots of humanities professors — at Bethel, Liberty, and many other institutions — will still suffer the kinds of loss that I lamented last month. Some of them are my friends. (One of them could be me, before it’s all said and done.) In no way is the future immediately bright. Part of me feels like I can’t give those colleagues enough time to grieve before being so bold as to look for light on the horizon.

But if I was right in that earlier post to “believe that the dying of the status quo can bring forth new life,” then I think there are at least three reasons to hope that the humanities will experience revival during the second fifteen-year act of my career.

I hate finding images to illustrate more conceptual posts, but here’s “Hope,” per Creative Commons (Forest Wander)

The Return of a Historical Cycle

When I first started writing about the decline in the humanities, I pointed readers to the work of digital historian Ben Schmidt, who demonstrated that undergraduate enrollment in majors like history, English, and philosophy followed a clear cycle of decline (1950s, 1980s) and rebound (1960s-early 1970s, 1990s). But the ongoing numerical collapse of fields like ours led Schmidt to admit two years ago that “something different has been happening with the humanities since the 2008 financial crisis…. Declines have hit almost every field in the humanities… and related social sciences, they have not stabilized with the economic recovery, and they appear to reflect a new set of student priorities, which are being formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom.” Schmidt didn’t expect the humanities to go away altogether, but he wasn’t sure that they’d ever “return to being true peers of the social sciences and sciences in American higher education.”

But seemingly fixed trends have a way of changing. I’m a historian, not a futurist, but it’s easy to imagine that the current pandemic will disrupt assumptions that had started to become conventional wisdom just a year or two ago. Perhaps, for example, it will rearrange that set of student priorities to which Schmidt alluded.

After all, the earlier rebounds of the humanities at least coincided with unexpected shocks in the 1960/early 1970s (Vietnam War, youth revolts, energy crisis) and 1990s (end of the Cold War, emergence of the Internet). I don’t want to assume causation where there’s no more than correlation. But if COVID doesn’t produce entirely new developments that defy even recent expectations, it might at least create the conditions for a return to a familiar up-and-down cycle.

A New (and Old) Economic Argument

“But wait a minute,” someone just shouted. “Higher education is even worse shape now. COVID will cause hundreds of colleges and universities to close.”

Just yesterday New York magazine gave a platform to a business professor who thinks that higher ed will soon be dominated by partnerships between a few elite research universities and tech companies. If Scott Galloway is right — and he just so happens to have “founded his own virtual classroom start-up” that would benefit from such a disruption — then “hundreds, if not thousands, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business and those that remain will have student bodies composed primarily of the children of the one percent.”

Christensen and Eyring, The Innovative UniversityWe’ve heard this before. Anyone remember 2013, when “disruptive innovators” with Harvard titles were predicting that the massive open online course, or MOOC, would make classrooms like mine obsolete? Of course, it’s possible that COVID — which has undoubtedly deepened the economic crisis facing many college, private and public — will give a second life to that disruption. Though it seems as likely that millions of current and future students currently getting an intensive experience of remote education will run screaming from any significant extension of that format.

But assuming that most colleges and universities survive and continue to exist in brick-and-mortar, let’s also assume that they had to go through a permanent belt-tightening, perhaps including a more enduring expansion of online teaching and learning. I think it’s entirely possible that the humanities will actually weather such changes better than other fields.

First, we’re cheap.

Most of our costs are related to labor, where humanities are uniquely able to scale up or down. I don’t think this works at “massive” levels, but I do believe that a history lecture to 75 or even 125 students can be as effective as a seminar discussion with 5 of them. Ideally, it’s both, but I think the 30-35 students I typically teach in most courses — with a mix of lecture, discussion, simulations, projects, etc. — would say that they’re getting their money’s worth.

(Though part of that also reflects my privilege in having a tenured position. As hard as non-tenure-track and contingent instructors work, they can’t be expected to be fully invested in and creative with their efforts at institutions that don’t invest in their long-term employment and protect their academic freedom as teachers and researchers.)

Past what it costs to employ a teacher like me… It simply doesn’t take much infrastructure to teach courses like mine. Humanists read stuff, talk about stuff, and write stuff. Give us a place to gather and some kind of access to texts, and we can do what we do.

I mean, if you can teach history in the middle of the Odeonsplatz on a cold January day in Munich…

And maybe (to some degree) we can even gather in a virtual space. I don’t think that we can do everything well online, but we can do some things well, at least for some students. I don’t love what the last two months have looked like in my classes, but it’s been far easier for a humanist like me to make this leap than it’s been for my colleagues in laboratory-based sciences, performance and studio arts, and professional programs that rely on clinicals, practicums, field experiences, and internships.

So what we do in the humanities has relatively low cost… but high value.

Consider another kind of economic argument, one I’ve made before but has only been strengthened by our economy’s experience of COVID: For undergraduates, studying humanities may be “the least risky way to prepare for employment in the 21st century economy.”

If you didn’t already believe me that today’s college graduates should expect “much less stability in employment at virtually every stage of a much longer work life,” then look at the economy under COVID. Now, this pandemic is underscoring the importance of training people well for careers in health care, education, quantitative analysis, and scientific research, but it’s also undercutting entire sectors of the economy — and so underscoring how risky it can be to invest three or four years of college tuition in preparing to walk through a relatively narrow professional pathway. Whereas a college student in the post-COVID economy might see more clearly than ever that focused study of the humanities will equip her “with generally applicable skills, mitigating the risk that her college-age career preparation will be rendered obsolete by fluctuations in the job market” and prepare her for the future learning (graduate school, job retraining) that will almost certainly recur throughout her career.

On Permanent and Impermanent Things

Finally, as much as the humanities equip people adapt to such transitions, they do even more to help humans wrestle with what’s permanent: the fundamental questions that recur at all times and places, in all economies and civilizations.

I don’t mean that our disciplines themselves are unchanging. As my Intro to History students have learned this semester, #EverythingHasAHistory — including the practice of history, which has significantly changed over time. Likewise, students in Bethel’s philosophy courses wouldn’t recognize some aspects of teaching and learning in Aquinas’ lectures or Aristotle’s lyceum.

Raphael, “The School of Athens” (1511) – Wikimedia

But those are accidents, not substance. One way or another, humans need to ask the questions that are asked in the humanities, and our disciplines give them tools to seek answers — and then to live with the ambiguities, paradoxes, tensions, and other complexities that are so typical of such inquiry.

If our experience of COVID-19 has made clearer than ever the importance of sciences like biology and psychology (and of mathematics, tomorrow’s installment in our Pandemics and the Liberal Arts podcast), then it has also reiterated the importance of disciplines that explain context, change, and continuity, cultivate empathy and humility, interpret language, question those in power, and make meaning of existence.

Any higher education worth its name will have to do more of that in the future, not less.