Harvard professors do a bad job of holding on to freshmen. In the last eleven incoming classes, the percentage of aspiring humanists has dropped from 27 to 18 percent, and more than half of that 18 percent who began with the humanities ended up in a different division, mostly social science. Why do they head for the exits? Although it acknowledges the prestige of the natural sciences and the pressure students feel to find jobs, a report by the university’s Arts and Humanities Division identifies the real problem: They don’t like the classes.
Acknowledging the decline in humanities majors at Harvard over the last fifty years, from nearly half of all undergraduates to just one-fifth today, Mapping the Future asks why fewer and fewer students concentrate on history, literature, philosophy, languages, or the arts. After dismissing arguments that the decline is unique to Harvard or caused by economic insecurity, the report places much of the blame on the faculty. Humanities professors alienate students because they have elevated specialized research over general education and are often deaf to moral dissent.
If we are serious about saving the humanities from themselves, we should welcome the mea culpa this report offersand continue to argue that the humanities can revive themselves by returning to their original vocation as an investigation of man’s predicament between heaven and earth, God and beast.