Humanities Under the Microscope

At National Humanities Alliance conference, advocates talk challenges, solutions.

NHA Annual Meeting
March 18, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

Conversations in higher education around which fields of study will produce the most employable graduates often focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The humanities tend not to be mentioned. That is a mistake, said experts at the annual meeting of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) held at the George Washington University and on Capitol Hill Monday and Tuesday. Over two days, experts and advocates of humanism and the social sciences talked about the importance of their disciplines, and the challenges facing them.

“No issue is more important nationally and globally than the fate of humanistic studies, and no effort in my judgment is more important than the preservation of rich and vibrant inquiry into the artifacts and practices that are the objects of the humanities,” said George Washington President Steven Knapp, speaking at the conference’s opening breakfast.

“Here in the United States, that means ensuring that the humanities are not eclipsed by the understandable emphasis on the so-called STEM fields—science, engineering, technology and mathematics,” he said.

David Marshall, NHA president and executive vice chancellor of the University of California-Santa Barbara, said that the dominant narrative about the humanities has failed to emphasize their importance—not just in grand rhetorical terms but also in terms of the specifics that university constituents say they value.

Humanities majors score better on many pre-professional standardized tests, he said, and studies also suggest that employers are not interested in an employment pool containing fewer history majors or more computer science majors. They want employees with high work ethics, communication skills and an ability to think critically and synthesize ideas—all skills emphasized in humanist studies.

“Employers want…students with broad-based knowledge, multiple literacies and the ability to collaborate and solve problems,” he said. “They understand that economic prosperity depends on graduates who can bring analytical skills, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship to the workforce.”

Keynote speaker Scott Jaschik, a founder and editor of online news magazine Inside Higher EdInside Higher Ed, discussed the external and internal challenges facing humanities departments.

With the increased streamlining of degree programs, he said, general education has been devalued. Without a course requirement, students may never have the chance to “fall in love” with a humanities field, he said. The humanities also tend to “fall off the radar” in large-scale discussions about the state of higher education. And when politicians do talk about the humanities, they tend—willfully or not—to misrepresent the fields as stagnant, esoteric or irrelevant.

“Unfortunately, you guys are easy to bash,” Mr. Jaschik said.

There are solutions. Mr. Jaschik suggested several from a journalistic perspective, including that humanities advocates need to respond faster to criticism and to craft responses that are easier to understand.

But even more importantly, he said, supporters of the humanities should not be trapped by a myopic focus on practicality. For instance, defenders of a college’s languages department might argue that employers want Arabic or Russian speakers to deal with national security issues. That argument, he pointed out, is a double-edged sword.

“My guess is the people in this room believe that French should be taught as well,” Mr. Jaschik said. “If you believe—and I suspect you do—that our world is a better place if some people read French well enough to read French literature, if you believe that the world is a better place when people read novels and understand history, you need to talk to the press and others about that value, not just in a practical way.”