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 offers—and 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.
Like other contributions to the literature on the so-called crisis of the humanities, Mapping the Future begins with the observation that teaching and learning about books, languages, and art attract less institutional support and student interest than they once enjoyed. Some commenters argue that this is a return to the norm after the bursting of an enrollment bubble that peaked around 1970. Even so, the challenges to the humanities cannot be written off as a passing problem.
These challenges are not monolithic. State universities face political pressure to justify their funding as a public interest. Tuition-dependent private schools face the financial challenge of attracting paying customers. Rich universities like Harvard, by contrast, can afford to ignore politics and money. Mapping the Future is an unusual and important contribution to the debate on the crisis of the humanities partly because Harvard’s wealth allows it to focus on the intellectual issue. In other words, Mapping the Future can be understood as the strongest case for the humanities the writers—all Harvard professors—felt able to make, free of the necessity to pander to cheapskate legislators or utilitarian parents.
Mapping the Future is also distinguished by its focus on undergraduate education. It offers a refreshing alternative to discussions that bemoan the awful job market for Ph.Ds. Academics sometimes speak as if students have a duty to soak up the excess supply of instructors. It is the professors’ job to make the case that students should devote time and money to their disciplines.
One reason, the report argues, that students are alienated by humanities classes is that they find them irrelevant. Most students who enter the Ivy League are more idealistic than outsiders realize. Contrary to their reputation as baby investment bankers, they want to contribute to society. They really are excited about study—just not as preparation for an academic career.
Humanities courses don’t satisfy this idealism. Students who want to contribute to society tend to drift toward the social sciences, which teach knowledge and skills of more obvious relevance.
The humanities clearly can’t reverse this drift by adopting a faddish presentism. Mapping the Future correctly suggests that professors should limit themselves to teaching works that they regard as great, whether or not these works seem obviously connected to contemporary issues.
At the same time, humanities professors who want to hold on to students must make the case that encounters with great works, often produced a long time ago, do not distract us from modern life but offer wisdom we can use in our own lives. The report equivocates on this imperative in an attempt to provide an equal defense for approaches that emphasize the vast distances that separate us from our forebears. That can be good sense in scholarship, but it’s bad in undergraduate teaching. You hook students by convincing them that the past is still with us, not that it’s a foreign country.
In practice, that means offering survey courses that track ideas, subjects, or techniques from their origins up to the present day. Many professors forget this and either avoid introductory classes or teach them as if they were upper-level seminars. Contrary to populist conservative critiques, academic specialization is a more serious obstacle to successful humanities teaching than political correctness.
Yet politics is a real issue. Mapping the Future quietly acknowledges “a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy.” Professors have no responsibility to protect the tender feelings of conservative students from the serious critiques that have been advanced by great thinkers. On the other hand, humanities courses have a deserved reputation for discouraging real debate about politics, religion, and morality. The fact that these debates are treated as normal and even encouraged in departments of government, especially, encourages students to drift toward the social sciences.
As a professor who made his way from history to politics courses as an undergraduate more than a decade ago, I speak from experience here. My chosen field of political theory is little more than a humanistic approach to questions that are rarely broached in the humanities proper.
Despite these problems, the humanities at Ivy League universities don’t face existential threats. Twenty percent of majors is still a lot. And Mapping the Future reports that humanities concentrators are more satisfied than concentrators in other divisions. Nevertheless, the trends the report notes point toward continuing marginalization. As an essay in prescription as well as diagnosis, the report offers a number of proposals to reverse them.
These proposals are modest, but also appealing. The most promising is for new freshman and sophomore survey courses that would provide the background students lack. Because they have little general knowledge, many students have trouble identifying related courses devoted to different disciplines and periods. Rubrics that link classes in the Old Testament and English literature, for example, would help students construct a coherent curriculum from the wreckage left by the collapse of the old ideal of general education.
Improved advising may also be helpful. Connecting graduates in the humanities directly with employers through internships and training programs might assuage students’ (and parents’) fear that a degree in classics is a ticket to standing behind the counter at Starbucks. This proposal, it should be said, is more relevant to students at universities like Harvard, which are already connected to elite cultural institutions and big businesses, than to philosophy majors at second-tier state colleges. But the fact that it would not help everyone doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
But none of these worthy proposals answers the question of what the humanities are for. Reasonable as the proposals are, they are directed toward administrative challenges to the restoration of the humanities rather than the restoration of their spirit. For Mapping the Future, the humanities are a mode of study inside the university. But they are not, as originally conceived, a specific way of being a human being in any institution or setting.
The report properly rejects the expectation that humanities students become professors. But it announces instead that the ideal graduate with a humanities degree would be an “internationally competent mediator of cultural history.” What on earth does this mean? That a degree in the humanities prepares one to be a kind of tour guide, qualified to translate the treasures of one civilization into the demotic idiom of another? If that’s the goal of the humanities, no wonder students prefer economics.
If the humanities are going to attract and hold on to students, they must do better than vague pronouncements about cultural mediation. In Plato’s response to Aristophanes’ satirical description of Socrates—as an egghead who reflects on the nature of the heavens and gods while suspended in the air in a basket—academic humanists already have at their disposal a compelling response to the critiques that have accompanied the humanities for centuries. They need only the humility to take that response seriously.
It is reflective both of the virtues and the flaws of Mapping the Future that it discusses Aristophanes but hardly mentions Plato, except to dismiss his putative hatred of rhetoric. In other words, it recognizes the problem but ignores the best solution that history offers. For Plato, the kind of inquiries that we call the humanities were not simply a path to knowledge. They were a royal road to the only life worthy of a human being.
Contemporary students are enthralled by Plato’s Socrates because he combines profound ignorance with astonishing ambition. Like them, he recognizes that he knows nothing—and yet he wants to know the meaning of life. The techniques that we now call philosophy, philology, history, and literary criticism provide Socrates with tools that he can use in this enterprise. But they aren’t ends in themselves.
Above all, Socrates addresses his modern young interlocutors on their own level, drawing on ideas and examples from their own experience and taking their often naive opinions seriously. You didn’t need a graduate degree or a passport to talk to Socrates as he appears in Plato’s dialogues—only the desire to search for wisdom about the true, the good, and the beautiful. That’s the openness and excitement that students look for, and miss, in college classes.
The whole report could have been replaced by a commentary on Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates argues that, far from damaging his students and his city, he benefits them so much that he deserves to be fed at the public expense rather than punished with death. Academic humanists still have much to learn from his example, although he did not succeed in winning his case.
Samuel Goldman is associate professor of political science at George Washington University.