How to Market the Humanities

The culture war is nearly lost, and the philistines are winning. No, I don’t mean the culture war between social/political conservatives and liberals. That war rages on. The truly desperate struggle that cuts across the conservative/liberal divide is the fight against consumerism whereby consumers are, themselves, consumed by the search for lower prices, better deals, and the never-ending corporate hunt for exploitatively cheap labor anywhere in the world, resulting in greater concentrations of wealth for those at the top. And this consumerist culture finds overwhelming support in what I call educational philistinism.

Educational philistinism triumphs in the views of those who hold that the only knowledge worth acquiring is “useful” or “practical” knowledge and that the liberal arts and sciences, including the humanities,  should be expunged from higher education or, at the very least, shoved to the margins. Several universities, especially for-profit institutions, offer programs of study that exclude the humanities entirely, except perhaps for training in basic communication skills. I have argued previously that the personal and social benefits of the humanities—appreciation of cultural differences, a sense of empathy, and commitment to the common good—will be lost unless certain reforms occur in the way the humanities are studied and presented and unless the general public becomes convinced of the importance of the humanities. At a time when leading political figures continue to call for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, we must find ways to market the humanities effectively.

Stories about Benefits

Go to any college website and search for information about the humanities, and what do you find? Typically, you stumble across abstract descriptions of the sort of things prospective students can expect to study in such programs, perhaps with some attention to faculty research interests or achievements. In marketing terms, these are descriptions of the features of studying the humanities, not the benefits. But humanists could learn something from marketers, namely, that people buy or buy into something when they become emotionally committed to the benefits offered. Attention to features becomes an after-the-fact rationale. To market the humanities, then, we must drive home the benefits by appealing to the emotions.

Without reducing the study of the humanities to narrative (that is definitely not my intention), one can acknowledge that narrative is an integral component of much of the study and practice of the humanities. Most important, narrative makes sense out of our otherwise chaotic experience, shows us that we are not alone, and awakens our emotions. To sell the benefits of the humanities means to tell the stories about those benefits, and to do so in the most effective ways possible.

Unfortunately, most colleges and universities are not telling these stories. Perhaps this is because the sort of programmatic shifts—focusing on how study of the humanities prepares one for better performance in employment and deeper engagement in society—that I have recommended have not occurred. After viewing several videos of students reporting on their service learning experiences, for instance, I find that most students talk about their off-campus experience, but ignore the intellectual reflection that should accompany and enrich that experience.

There are pockets of instruction in the humanities that go beyond merely teaching the mechanics of expression, that directly seek to awaken a passion for understanding what it means to be human. One such example occurs in the writing program at Rutgers University as developed by Prof. James Miller and his colleagues. Their multimedia introduction to their course, “Writing as a Naturalist,” illustrates the sort of transformative approach that can rejuvenate the humanities in relation to other studies.

As a further example of what I mean, consider a course in ethics that might contain a service learning component in which, say, an accounting student engages in a project of assisting poor people or the elderly with preparing their tax returns. The point of the project would be not only the assistance given to poor or elderly taxpayers, but also the disciplined, ethical reflection on the effects of the current tax structure on the lives of such persons. What the accounting student learns about the ethical ramifications of current tax policy for the disadvantaged or elderly is the story that needs to be told.

Similarly, students of literature or history could interview combat veterans as their course project to ascertain how the interviews confirm or challenge common assumptions regarding historical context or the structure and meaning of autobiographical narrative. In other words, how the relevant humanities discipline provides a theoretical framework for understanding and interacting with human beings in their concrete lives should be the important story. Telling such stories in articles, blogs, videos, and other media can awaken prospective students and the public to the relevance of the humanities to successful living in society.

Strategies for Marketing the Humanities

The approach to marketing the humanities that I’m suggesting requires employing the very best marketing strategies and techniques, including multimedia communications. This is too important to be left to faculty still imprisoned in their ivory tower. With one eye on “real life” situations, including career preparation, and the other eye on the perspectives that study of the humanities can provide, stories of actual student experience and achievement should be splashed across university websites, alumni/ae magazines, and the public media. The copy should be written by professional communications personnel and the videos produced by videographers who can turn out a professional product.

Since it is so important, a word on multimedia production is necessary. Many student-produced videos of service learning projects are available on YouTube. Most are difficult to watch because of audio-visual flaws. And nearly all omit any hint of intellectual reflection on the service experience. To be sure, it is desirable to convey the immediacy of a student’s experience rather than merely show a series of administrators, faculty, or other “talking heads” discussing service learning programs. But depicting only the concrete service experience is not the way to tell the story. In addition to the action portion of the video, faculty or professional interviewers should engage students in a discussion of the theoretical dimensions of their experience. In a controlled or structured interview, the relevance of the humanities (and other disciplines) becomes more apparent to all.

Although service learning experiences provide excellent opportunities for relating stories of the importance of the humanities, they are not the only occasion for public expression. If much-needed changes in criteria for evaluating faculty performance are implemented, faculty could be liberated to become more engaged in community activities relevant to their respective disciplines. Such engagement, if publicized vigorously, can insert the humanities into the daily lives of more individuals and of the community at large. Colleges and universities must reclaim in a public way their role as a community resource.

The Need for Further Discussion

Throughout three posts on marketing the humanities, I have asserted that the special subdisciplines of the humanities have become so esoteric, so jargon-laden, that such study is cut off from the daily existence of most persons, including students. I have also asserted that those who promote the commodification of knowledge in order to teach only the skills that students need to be employed threaten the very existence of the humanities and the breadth provided by a liberal arts education. If these latter succeed, individual students and our society will become increasingly impoverished in multiple senses of that word. That is why the humanities must be marketed.

But how to market the humanities is not always clear. Professional marketers too often concentrate on promoting their college or university with little thought to the actual content of their institution’s “brand” or reputation. And faculty, perhaps especially in the humanities, too often pursue a “life of the mind” in blissful isolation from the public’s interests and their students’ concerns about their economic and social survival. Somehow, if higher education worthy of the name is to flourish, these two—humanities faculty and professional marketers—must cooperate to tell the socially relevant stories  by which the humanities can command public attention once again. More suggestions than I can present here are needed, lest the philistines triumph completely.


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