Why Market the Humanities

The humanities are in trouble, big trouble. For a long time, student demand for upper-level courses in literature, philosophy/religious studies, history, and fine arts has dwindled. Humanities department budgets have withered, and full-time faculty appointments have dried up. As Frank Donoghue has pointed out in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham, 2008), this decline has occurred over the last 100 years, accelerating during the last 30 years or so with the rise of the corporate model of higher education.  More recently, he answers the question, “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?” with “Who cares?”   His prediction of the future of the humanities is starkly, and appropriately, grim:

The Shift to a Corporate Model

At well-endowed liberal arts colleges or prestigious universities, study of the humanities continues because these institutions are able to impose a humanities-centered core curriculum for those who can afford a four-year degree not leading directly to employment. But as many have pointed out, traditional higher education has been transformed by a corporate model in which students are regarded as “consumers” and faculty treated as “facilitators” or employees requiring close fiscal management. Consider the following:

  • Over the last 30 years, the number of tenured and tenure-track, full-time faculty positions has shrunk to 31%.
  • Generally, colleges no longer market the humanities at all. Now, marketing messages focus on career preparation and institutional prestige (including athletics).
  • Flourishing or growing university programs occur in business, medicine, and other “practical” areas, funded mostly by corporate and government grants.
  • Programs in the humanities do not attract external funding and depend on support from university general funds.
  • To meet current economic challenges, the Obama administration promotes college for all, with particular emphasis on the role of community colleges, to provide the necessary skills for tomorrow’s work force.
  • The University of Phoenix is the second-largest university system in the U.S., behind only the State University of New York.

The latter two points deserve elaboration. At most community colleges, career-oriented training dwarfs the humanities. To be sure, community colleges provide much-needed remedial training in written and oral communication to make up for the failure of secondary schools, but upper-level courses in literature, history, and philosophy are thin. This observation does not denigrate the role of community colleges, for they provide a vital and important service to increasing numbers of students despite declining resources. But the central role of the humanities in traditional higher education in the U.S. is virtually non-existent for the vast majority of their students.

In addition, the rapid rise of for-profit institutions threatens to supplant the traditional models of higher education with something entirely new: a model focused almost exclusively on students’ need for employment credentials. This model delivers skills training in response to student demand (as determined by employment markets) mostly via online instruction delivered by “contingent” facilitators. No overhead for libraries, laboratories, research facilities, or other expenses incurred by traditional schools is allowed to dilute profits. And no pretense of commitment to “higher learning” clouds the model. As John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, said in 2002,

This is a corporation, not a social entity. Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop their [students’] value systems or go in for that “expand their minds” bullshit.
This is hardly an atmosphere conducive to the flourishing of the humanities, since they are regarded as socially useless, superfluous.

The Irrelevance of the Humanities

Unfortunately, humanities scholars are responsible, to some extent, for much of the current malaise. After all, the benefits of studying the humanities—if, indeed, there are any—are not readily apparent to the general public. Ever since humanities scholars followed the lead of 19th-century German research universities, their scholarly production has become continually more esoteric and less accessible to the general public. (The last time I attended an American Academy of Religion national meeting, fully 90% of scholarly titles on the program were unintelligible to me!) Considering further that only 2% of all scholarly articles are cited by other scholars, one must conclude that virtually no one is reading this stuff.

In the past, going all the way back to medieval universities, study of the liberal arts, including the humanities, was considered essential to education for the

2nd half of 14th century

Henricus of Alemannia, lecturing to students of ethics, 14th century

professions (chiefly medicine, law, and theology). And that foundation characterized the liberal arts tradition as a prerequisite for professional careers through most of the 20th century. The rationale for this included an understanding of the professions as self-policing, as being committed to an explicit code of ethics, and as responsible for social leadership. But in an era devoted to individual survival in a globalized economy, such a foundation for personal advancement is no longer necessary. And, in my view, that is the problem. That is why we must market the humanities once again, despite the quixotic nature of the effort.

Recovering the “Common Good”

We live in times marked by high unemployment, decreasing consumption, depletion of natural resources, global climate change, and a globalized economy intent on reducing production costs (especially labor costs) as much as possible. In response to such circumstances, people are understandably concerned with their individual survival, the well-being of their in-group (family, ethnic group, nation, etc.), and their personal enrichment. Such problems should provoke attention to a concept embedded in what the religion scholar, Huston Smith, calls the world’s wisdom traditions but hardly ever expressed today: the concept of the common good. Nevertheless, a few caveats are in order.

If marketing the humanities is undertaken merely to preserve the existence of venerable, though beleaguered, academic departments and to save the jobs of the few remaining tenured faculty, then the effort should and will fail. This is not about whether faculty members will continue to be employed or underpaid. The self-serving character of much of today’s faculty bleating is unseemly and counterproductive.

Nor should study of the humanities be promoted for reasons of cultural enrichment. Production of good literature, art, or music does not depend on the study of the humanities and need not be tied to universities at all. Treating such cultural productions only as commodities to be bought and sold according to the marketplace does not necessarily enrich society (note the number of truly bad films produced every year), but university study in these areas is unlikely to help much.

Finally, I do not think that studying the humanities turns individuals into better persons, at least not directly. As evidence, consider how the required study of business ethics in most MBA or law programs has had little effect on the behavior of corporate, financial, or government leaders. The study of ethics does not lead directly to ethical behavior.

What, then, of this notion of the common good? In the past, the liberal arts served as the foundation for professional studies primarily because it was necessary not only to study nature, but also to understand the human condition. There are several ways to express this, but I would begin by pointing out that studying the humanities can lead to deeper appreciation of what makes us truly and commonly human: what makes us laugh, cry, rejoice, grieve, love, hate, live fully, or die miserably. For example, we tend to consider our lives as narratives, and when we attend the narratives of others, we know that we’re not alone, that we are understood, that we bear some responsibility for the general welfare of all.

Such awareness awakens empathy. And empathy is crucial for addressing the problems that beset us. The rampant individualism of the marketplace will never be sufficient; indeed, it impedes dealing with these prolems. Perhaps inefficiently, the study of the humanities can help us understand one another and ourselves, not just in terms of brain activity as revealed by an fMRI or for the purpose of manipulating others, but with regard to what moves us toward appreciation of the other. Without that, as a society, we are doomed.

Thus, I believe that there is a social benefit to the study of the humanities. And I believe that this benefit can be conveyed effectively to the general public. And further, I believe it is the responsibility of institutions of higher learning to promote this benefit forthrightly and to showcase programs that help achieve it. In other words, I believe we must market the humanities.

In the next installment, I will offer some suggestions on how to do that.


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