Monthly Archives: June 2013


Humanists: do not panic about your declining market share.

One frequently hears that the humanities in particular and the “liberal arts” in general are in decline. That’s not accurate, as we’ve joined the likes of James English and David Laurence in arguing here and here.

In this post, we investigate the statistical measure that underwrites this pernicious bit of conventional wisdom. In so doing, we make a discovery that helps explain why the narrative of humanities decline has such widespread appeal. The story of decline is also a disavowal of structural change to U.S. higher education involving massive growth in both number of students and the number of degrees in which they can enroll.

Recently, Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Jeff Selingo joined the crowd in proclaiming that liberal arts’ market share has been taken over by “practical degrees in vocational fields.” He writes,

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in traditional arts-and-sciences fields (English, mathematics, biology) peaked in the late 1960s, when about half of all degrees awarded were in those disciplines. Today, such majors account for about a quarter of degrees, as students have fled to practical degrees in vocational fields, such as business and communications or, more recently, sports management and computer-game design.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a chart that emphatically illustrates this version of events.

This chart and the contention it illustrates are misleading. They depend on emphasizing percentage of degrees awarded. This particular measure is deceptive in two key ways.

First, percentage of degrees renders invisible the effects of the post-WWII boom in postsecondary education.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 1959-60 there were 392,440 bachelor’s degrees conferred in the U.S. By 2010-11 that number had ballooned to 1,715,913.
The GI Bill, the Pell Grant, and the growth of large state institutions have all driven up the number of students who complete college. The numbers of students majoring in the humanities have risen as well, but this fact gets lost when one only cares about share.

The very Humanities Indicators Project data that the Wall Street Journal excerpts and repackages to produce its alarming downward curve also shows the difference between what happens when one tabulates share of degrees versus degrees overall.

This presentation of the period in question shows both the downward trending percentage and the upward trend in absolute numbers. The latter, obviously, disappears if one only looks at percentage.

Because it renders overall growth invisible, Ben Schmidt explains,

“[P]ercentage of all degrees” is a strange denominator. Taking into account the massive changes in the American university since the Second World War, it’s the resilience of the humanities that should be surprising. If you care about humanistic education, you shouldn’t be worrying about market share inside the university. You should care about the whole population.

Consider the whole population, Schmidt notes, and you will be able to observe that “we give out far more population-normalized degrees in the humanities now than we did in the 1950s or the 1980s.”

To measure the share of degrees without considering the growing number of degrees overall is to ignore how rapid and sustained growth restructured postsecondary education.

The difference between the “NSF” and “CIP” curves in the above chart provides a clue about the quality of this restructuring. Although both measures ultimately rely on the same survey data, they employ different methods of aggregation to measure “the humanities.” As the Humanities Indicators project explains in a note “The utility of the NSF system for the purposes of the Humanities Indicators (HI) is limited” because it does not “include in its tally those degrees conferred in the areas of musicology, art history, film studies, and drama history/criticism,” or, further, “archeology, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, and Holocaust studies.”

Here is a problem every statistician trying to measure “the humanities” must face: What to include? What to exclude? Because there are no government numbers for the humanities as a whole, one must actively decide which parts of the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) to count. There is no way to discover humanities share, in other words, without either asking an array of potentially fractious questions or making a set of questionable assumptions.

It is vital to observe that the problem has only become more complicated in recent decades, as the number of degrees offered by universities and colleges has itself grown substantially.

This is the second way percentage of all degrees is misleading: higher education now engages in a slew of activities it wasn’t even thinking about in the 1950s, and this fact has had huge effects on what counts as “the humanities.”

At midcentury, as Schmidt notes, English, History, Philosophy, and the languages were big players at many schools. Now, although the old core departments remain large ones in most U.S. universities, these legacy degrees face stiff competition not only from majors in social science, STEM, and business, but also from the range of majors that compose a much wider contemporary spectrum of humanities study.

Since the late 1960s, the rise of African and African American Studies, Women’s and Gender and Sexuality Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, Film Studies, and myriad other degrees have created many more choices for undergraduates. Although the survey data does not in itself explain why students choose one degree rather than another, it seems reasonable to conclude that legacy degrees have lost some of their share to these majors, which are likely to be counted as part of the “arts and humanities” (again, depending on the method of aggregation). If the present trends continue, it is possible to imagine a vibrant and expanding “humanities” in which English, History, and Philosophy (for example) have increasingly smaller shares. In any case, the fate of the humanities is not isomorphic with the completion shares of its most established disciplines.

In 1966, the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS) encouraged institutions to report on 399 degree programs, around 60 of which (or about 15%) could be called “arts and humanities” (including history). In 2010, revisions to the CIP brought the total number of reportable programs to 1733, of which “arts and humanities” degrees (including history) numbered around 230 (or about 13%). Instructional programs newly added to the 2010 classification included, for example, Military History, Music Technology, Children’s and Adolescent Literature, and Disability Studies. Importantly, not every instructional program necessarily awards a bachelor’s degree. The complexity of the scheme also testifies to a postsecondary sector offering increasingly multifarious degrees and certificates.

In such a crowded academy, it is impossible for ANY single degree program to retain the shares that History or English could have claimed midcentury. What has happened is not decline, therefore, but increased differentiation.

This transformation may be likened to the changes proliferating channels and distribution systems brought to television: instead of a handful of networks and local stations, now a viewer may choose from hundreds of channels, not to mention YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and all of the various streams both licit and illicit through which “TV” gets consumed. The share of any particular network can only decline in this context, but such decline fails to capture the structural shift.

In one respect, at least, universities and colleges have less to worry about than television producers. Some 90% of U.S. households already had TVs by 1962, which means that although Americans continue to watch more television the room for growth is clearly limited. There may be more upside to bachelor’s degrees: NCES expects significant continued growth through 2021:

If degree share provides a misleading measure because it erases the dramatic change and expansion of postsecondary education, one might well ask why that number proves so important for commentators ranging from Harvard faculty to The Wall Street Journal, Chronicle bloggers, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

The answer can be gleaned from what degree share leaves out, namely that bachelor’s completions are not qualitatively equal, but rather participate in reproducing a professional division of labor that is in some measure meritocratic.

In place of an argument over meritocracy, the decline narrative sets a drama of popularity. It asks us to fret over why students stopped asking “the humanities” to the prom when we should be thinking through the changes that have made diverse humanities disciplines attractive to upwards of 1.5 million undergraduates in the last decade alone. Those changes shape possibilities for students, scholars, and policy makers alike.

The decline narrative needs humanities degrees to appear “unpopular” in order to construe student disinterest as a symptom that commentators can diagnose and remedy. The most common diagnoses these days fault the humanities for being economically impractical or for having lost touch with their lofty mission as a transmitter of core values. Sometimes both.

These two explanations often go hand-in-hand even though they might appear contradictory. If humanities degrees are impractical it follows they could do better if more practically inclined. If humanities degrees have lost touch because they no longer “cultivate the human core” that David Brooks joins D.H. Lawrence in imagining as “‘the dark vast forest,’” then they could regain their former status by keeping practical matters (including politics) at arms length.

Contradictory claims can cohabitate because they share a blind spot. Decline mongers cannot see, or refuse to avow, that humanities degrees contribute expertise to a particular kind of society that needs it, one organized by and through such professionally administered institutions as universities and television networks.

Humanists must know that their teaching contributes to such a society. Even so, since the middle of the twentieth century (at least) many humanists have prefered to explain the value of their endeavor by embracing the project of producing citizens. With this stated goal, the humanities profess to flatten hierarchy and educate everyone while simultaneously generating relatively scarce expert credentials and reproducing meritocracy.

At midcentury, the Redbook explicitly treated these as contradictory aims that institutional practice should work to reconcile. The report recently issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences attempts the same juggling act, but less successfully. Unlike its accompanying promotional video, in which humanist learning promises truth and flowers to all comers, the lengthy report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation,” makes no bones about its administrative brief.

The Academy’s expert panel rhetorical asks:

“Who will lead America into a bright future?”

Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials
and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare ourselves and invest in the next generation to be these enlightened leaders. (2)

Who would begrudge the humanities an opportunity to make such well-rounded citizens, creative workers, worldly security experts, and consensus-oriented politicians? In making these aims appear commensurate, however, the report defers essential questions about where and how to “invest in the next generation.” Should creative workers be the priority, for example, or would focus on those types distract us from the need to produce more diplomats? Is this alternative the same as a choice between funding “the arts” or “languages”–a disciplinary difference that disappears within “the humanities,” but one that would be extremely relevant for institutions, where faculty and students do not inhabit “the humanities” but rather particular disciplines and departments. Of course, this is not necessarily an either-or choice, but it is the type of choice students, faculty, and administrators face. The rhetoric of decline is built to bracket off such details in service of providing a common defence. But is it a defense of a university anyone now actually inhabits?

The difficult work of creating an effective sense of common cause among disciplines well accustomed to competing with one another for scarce resources will require a more realistic acknowledgement of their institutional differences. It is not clear, for example, that the difference between “the humanities” and “the social sciences” looks as stark from the point of view of  Women’s Studies, Media Studies, and Anthropology as it does from the point of view of English, Art History, and Philosophy. Nor does it seem likely that the challenge of explaining the value of “the humanities” looks the same in all these fields. The critically important problem of this juncture, it seems to us, is how to coordinating activities of  humanist experts not well accustomed to collaborating with specialists in other fields.

The most encouraging parts of the Academy report avoid building a defensive wall around “the humanities,” and look instead to initiatives that enlist different types of experts in common projects. The report seeks to “bring humanists and social scientists together with physical and biological scientists and engineers to address major global challenges such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, universal education, human rights, and the assurance of physical safety” (43-44).

This sort of collaboration would be revelatory, we agree, but it makes no sense absence a clarified vision for humanities specializations and realistic appraisal of the tremendous work required to make such collaboration actually occur.

The report contends that humanists and social scientists are particularly well-situated to consider

• The ethical questions attending the adoption of new technologies;
• The social conditions that provide context for international policy decisions regarding the environment, global health, and human rights; and
• The cultural differences that aid or hinder global security. (44)

All true. But which humanists? And how? Unless one believes that a superficial understanding of ethics, technology, society, human rights, and world cultures is enough, there is a need to ask what combinations of degrees would be most helpful. That there’s more to expert knowledge than narrowly specialist pursuit is self-evident, but humanists will struggle to figure out what version of meritocratic society they want if they ignore the significance of their specializations. And administrators will mistake what “the humanities” have to offer if they continue to focus only on the larger legacy degrees.

Focus on market share obscures such vital questions about how the humanities changed as they increased in numbers of graduates and specializations. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences says it does not want to retreat to the “idealized past” of general education (34). Still, it relies on a narrative of decline in which we have fallen from a past when a few easily corralled disciplines–English, Philosophy, Languages, and History–enjoyed a popularity they now lack. The report acknowledges the fact of meritocratic specialization, but it shuns the challenge of reconciling this fact with lofty rhetoric of a generally “human” (i.e. national) improvement. We must do better. If we agree that investment in humanist postsecondary education makes the world a better place, we need an account that explains how an increasing array of specializations can be expected to satisfy that end.

Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” and Big Tent Humanities

Dear Mark,

This new Harvard report rejects the version of the humanities that welcomed you and me into the academy as graduate students in the 1990s, and that may be a good thing.

Back then, “theory” provided the means to turn humanities disciplines into very big tents, places where one felt emboldened to study just about anything. Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” departs from that recent past, offering instead an account of humanities disciplines organized around “Great Works,”  defined as “works whose transmission in our classrooms we consider vitally important” (33). It is possible to agree that this is a good idea even if canon building and list making seem to you the least interesting thing that humanities study can do. The reason? By dismantling the big tents (and especially turning away from big English), this report demands that we rethink interdisciplinary experiment as well as disciplinary curricula. The report would be even better at doing this, you rightly argue in your recent post, if the authors of “Mapping the Future” made any mention of twentieth-century humanities attention to mass media:

Exactly like their 1945 forebears [in the Redbook], these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about a century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.

I agree with you, and think we’re pretty much on the same page when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the history of humanities study sketched by “Mapping the Future.” The report is oblivious about much that has happened in the twentieth century, but its tracking of what can persuasively be called humanist work from classical Greece through medieval Europe and the Renaissance right up to the founding of Art History as a discipline in the nineteenth century is impressive and vital. Our project to generate a 20th-century genealogy of the humanities ought to find allies in scholars capable of noting the significance of the 12th-century study of “modern fiction (Latin integumentum), along with the modern European vernaculars,” of the way 14th-century “Humanism dedicated itself to the cultivation of certain applied practices (e.g., rhetoric) deemed useful to ‘good government,’” and of a 19th-century “secular” university including “Comparative Literature and Linguistics…alongside classical philology” (12-15). It does not seem wrong to say that in this history managing cultural media is entwined with questions of managing populations, even if the Harvard authors don’t put matters quite in those terms.

They don’t put matters quite in those terms, however, and do not provide an alternative means for explaining how engagement with civic life follows from mastery of a canon. The report is premised on what, following Elaine Scarry, it calls “the simple truth that ‘the main work of the Humanities is to ensure that the [great] books are placed in the hands of each incoming wave of students and carried back out to sea’” (32-33). We submit that this “simple truth” is not a 12th century one but rather a 19th and mid-20th century way of thinking. It derives from and responds to the proliferation of mass media.

It may be that I’m just not a listmaker–I’m no more engaged by the process of deciding what books our PhD students need to know for their preliminary exams than I am in debating whether Federer belongs on the list of greatest tennis players ever. But it is hard not to conclude that limiting the impact of recent intellectual interventions to questions of what we analyze in our respective fields is, well, limiting.

As the profiles of our disciplines shrink, we might also turn to those works that magnify the discipline, sometimes known as the canon. That revisited canon would of course be duly enlarged in the light of gender, ethnic and geographical challenges made to the very notion of the canon since the 1970s. (No movement has so thoroughly and dynamically energized the Humanities as feminism, since the 1970s.) Every new work for which persuasive claims are made changes the very structure of the canon: as T. S. Eliot argued, with a new work, “something…happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.” (32)

Russell Berman argues that the Harvard report is not interested in refighting culture wars, and that seems true to me. However, it is also worth observing that the report has absorbed a version of those wars in which what was truly at stake was objects of study rather than methods. What Berman finds bracing (“Bolder, however, than the rejection of departmental tunnel vision is the report’s call to revisit the canon.”), I find disappointing. Are we really at a moment when adding some extra books to our lists counts as bold?

Hard not to notice, moreover, that “Mapping the Future” fails to practice what it preaches: the salient cultural examples in this document are largely drawn from a hoary old collection of classical, Renaissance, and T.S. Eliot works.

Still, it does seem true that the humanities would be a different place if each unit within it were better defined by its media examples. The blurring of disciplinary boundaries that allowed one to read across media might be harder to accomplish if it was clearer that Comparative Literature had its examples and Film Studies had its examples and Art History had its examples and poaching was less easy than it could be when justified by a methodological ism. Theory could sometimes make it appear less important for scholars to discriminate between a poem and a movie and a painting. No more, the Harvard report might be read as saying.

If debates within English centered on questions about what works “we consider vitally important,” it would certainly be harder to conflate English study with Humanities study as a whole. Doing English would look incommensurate with being interdisciplinary, because disciplinary borders defined more emphatically by kinds of media examples would be harder to cross without knowing it. No more the presumption that because everything is a “text,” everything can be “read.”

If debates within English were limited to debates about canonicity, furthermore, it might be clearer that English is one small department among many others, rather than the biggest of big tents within the humanities.

When the report turns to the question of what interdisciplinary work would entail in this climate, method helpfully returns. Not, however, as a property of specific disciplines, mind you, but as a technique for moving among them. “In addition to permitting the combination of skills, interdisciplinarity, understood as a method, could be considered a skill in itself” (35). Leverage that skill, and you will see new things, be able to make new arguments about various cultural examples, and respond to changing conditions, the report suggests.

Allegiances among disciplines sometimes need to shift in order to tackle (or untangle) complex questions. Paradigm shifts or revolutions in human knowledge often came about owing to the consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material. (35)

Interdisciplinarity understood as method is the counterweight to disciplinarity associated with canonical examples. This formulation has benefits that the report only begins to perceive. It could have allowed “Mapping the Future” to offer a more persuasive account of feminism’s impact, not to mention all the other isms that altered humanities research in the second half of the twentieth century. These surely altered how we analyze our examples as much as what those examples were. From the standpoint of disciplinary distinction, however, this methodological impact was a major problem. The isms with their methods were stronger than the disciplines with their examples.

(As a sidebar, when I recently moderated a panel on interdisciplinarity at Davis, one of the matters the panelists discussed was precisely this question of whether method was the key to crossing disciplinary borders [so argued Mike Ziser, an Environmental Studies / 18th and 19th Century American Literature person] or whether examples were better at enabling dialog across disciplines defined by their methods [this was what Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, a historian on the panel described happening at a conference where scholars approached with their competing methods a particular sort of textile].)

As much as I’m intrigued by this division of labor, I repeat my complaint that the list making version of disciplinary activity is boring. That said, I am also convinced by arguments (made by, among others, you) that questions like What is film? are rightly understood as organizing disciplines and that to move among disciplines should mean considering the range of positions those questions engender. I sometimes miss the big tent that theory enabled with terms like “text” and “discourse,” but I readily acknowledge that using those terms as magic keys often leads to sloppy thinking. And I’ve certainly tried to keep the “What is” questions in the forefront of my mind as I engage in a project that deals with movies, video games, and novels in addition to position papers, surveys, maps, photographs, and other media associated with urban planning and urban studies.

Last thing I’ll say, which loops back to why the Harvard authors cannot just come out and agree that they are for our idea of training students to manage media as a way of managing populations. Yes, they’d have to read our blog to know that was our idea. This circumstantial detail aside, they would also have to agree that they were suggesting how to train a humanities workforce when they proposed their balancing act between the disciplinary curation of great works and the interdisciplinary “consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material.”

In this light, one might consider the interaction between the skills they recommend advertising to undergrads (and campus administrators) and their version of the midcentury project of molding citizen subjects. Although the authors of “Mapping the Future” describe their intervention as more modest than the Redbook (because they focus on the humanities instead of attacking general education), they reproduce a 1940s argument that the humanities help achieve “some stable understanding of the aim of life (e.g., the responsible citizen in a free society)” while enabling us to simultaneously consider “what the best way to characterize and cultivate such an aim might be” (24). This grand vision is supplemented by a more pragmatic notion of “the transferrable value of formal skills from university to the professional world beyond college”:

• the ability to absorb, analyze and interpret complex artifacts or texts, often of foreign provenance;

• the capacity to write intelligently, lucidly, and persuasively;

• the ability to participate effectively in deliberative conversation;

• the capacity to speak intelligently, lucidly and persuasively. (50)

Of course these are things we train our students to do (and we regularly proclaim as much when asked to justify our continued existence to various review and accrediting entities). But “Mapping the Future” seems so close to declaring something much more interesting, namely, that the work we do administering our disciplines and their examples within the academy might prepare us for work in cultural administration outside it. I’m struck yet again by how hard it is to take that last step. And how much clearer the necessity of doing so seems if one focuses on methods, how Humanists work, rather than on their privileged examples.

Redbook Redux

Dear John,

The Harvard professors are at it again. A recently released report, The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future,” picks up the banner of the mid-century General Education in a Free Society, albeit with a narrower brief of defending a role for the Humanities, as opposed to all of general education. Most notably for our purposes, this recasting of the Redbook recapitulates its refusal to understand mass media research and teaching as a central part of the humanities project.

Once again, however, there is also much to admire.  There’s a resounding opener: “The Arts and Humanities teach us how to describe experience, how to evaluate it, and how to imagine its liberating transformation.” Not bad for a document written by a committee! The account, refreshingly, is not English-centered and takes a long, if limited, historical view.

Moreover, borrowing from the Humanities Indicators project, the authors provide a responsible summary of long term data on humanities bachelors’ degrees. We see that after a steep drop in the 1970s national humanities BAs as a percentage of the total number have been more or less flat for the past two decades, with a slight decline after 2008. As we’ve noted elsewhere, following James English, the national trend numbers look different if one compares rates of growth in particular areas to the total growth in completions. Harvard is atypical in this respect, in that it has not increased undergraduate degrees significantly over the past decade. In the context of this document, reporting the national trend as degree-share (as opposed to growth-share) demonstrates that Harvard’s numbers have seen a more significant decline than the national average, particularly if one includes History BAs in the Humanities (a wise move, in my view). Nonetheless, the authors reasonably conclude: “we have less a ‘crisis’ in the Humanities in Harvard College . . than a challenge and opportunity” (11).

They also provide a clear path for reform. Faculty are encouraged to look to the freshman experience in particular, as the numbers show that “would-be” humanists are lost (mostly to Social Science) during that first year. As Russell Berman points out here, the overall case that humanists can and should take responsibility for enrollment declines and work to reverse them is refreshing and useful.

Still, it’s really too bad that this Harvard working group hasn’t been following our blog.

The trouble begins with their survey of arguments against the Humanities. They list five. The last, “The Technological Argument,” they summarize thusly:

Human societies, both literate and non-literate, have universally understood themselves through works of art that require deep immersion. In the twenty-first century, however, deep immersion is no longer the order of the technological day. New technologies disfavor the long march of narrative, just as they militate against sustained imaginative engagement. Students born after 1990 will not read paper books; much more significantly, they might not read books at all. The study of the “deep-immersion” art forms is the study of shrinking, if not of dying arts. Instead of lamenting that phenomenon, we should adapt to it. If we support the Humanities, we should support media studies, not the study of the high arts. (5-6)

It’s not entirely clear whether the first sentence, with its dubious declaration of a universal form of art appreciation, is meant to gloss the argument they are against or to assert their own viewpoint. In either case, the equation of “deep immersion” with printed narratives must be a straw man. How could educated and alert 21st century persons fail to acknowledge the possibility of deeply immersive experiences of audio visual works (narrative and otherwise) as well as shallow experiences of print material? (I might as well confess that while I understand and value the kind of sustained reflection I think they are describing, the language of “deep immersion” makes me think of the sensory deprivation tanks in Altered States.)

Most vexing, however, is this summary’s construal of a different vision for the humanities–one that includes “media”–as an argument against the humanities. They cite Toby Miller here. Maybe his misleading jeremiad against the “Humanities One” of elite universities got under their skin.  Or maybe this is really directed against Cathy Davidson-style “new media change everything” rhetoric. In any case, the drawing up of sides here is all wrong and, it turns out, symptomatic.

Although the authors encourage humanists to stop fighting the culture wars, their framing of “media” vs. “high arts” belies their debt to the powerful mid-century framing of the humanities that started those wars in the first place. The Redbook, like New Criticism, wrote out myriad collaborative efforts across the developing Humanities and Social Science disciplines, efforts  to engage mass media and the populations they addressed. Only by ignoring this interdisciplinary history could anyone believe that there was a void at the heart of the humanities that only the close reading of literature could fill.

The authors follow their statistical analysis with a history lesson that repeats this exclusion of mass media by ignoring almost everything that has happened in the university in the last 100 years. Beginning with the incorporation of the “Liberal Arts” tradition in the Medieval university, they find the Humanities “approaching their modern form” in historical and philological inquiry of the fifteenth-cenutry (12). Interestingly, the description insists on the instrumental value of this knowledge, “intended to transform the world through humane, enlightened action” (13). The truly modern university arrives in the nineteenth century with secularization, the study of vernacular languages, and such disciplines as Art History (15). That’s it. The authors feel no need to follow the history of the Humanities into the twentieth-century in order to define them as:

(i) disinterested, critical scholarship designed to uncover historical truth, (ii) the instructor of technical, applicable skills, and (iii) as the promoter of enlightened, engaged civic action that trains students constructively to understand their own humanity and that of others. (15)

In truth, this tripartite definition owes a clear debt to the twentieth-century history that the authors’ decline to narrate. Aspect (iii) harkens back to the mid-twentieth-century Redbook rhetoric recently revitalized by Harpham. Aspect (ii) rebuts those who question the Humanities’ market value, while (i) sides with those who insist that freedom from the marketplace is necessary for the Humanities to function. The definition deftly–tactically–avoids lingering controversies of poststructuralism. It does not mention that “historical truth” will necessarily be plural, but those in-the-know may infer it. Similarly, “their own humanity and that of others,” manages rhetorically the conflict between those who imagine “the human” to name a unity and those who think it a set of differential relations. Above all, the past informing this definition rings in the assertion of a need to balance these three particular imperatives–a mission that made sense for the Humanities, as opposed to Liberal Arts, only after the research university began to split off the STEM and Social Science disciplines as progenitors of useful, specialized, technical knowledge.

In short, by closing the curtain on the twentieth century that intervenes between the modern universities’ emergence and the present, the Harvard professors bracket off any number of controversies in order to distill an idealized humanist tradition. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of understanding many of the twentieth-century developments that inform their definition of the Humanities.

Instead of delving into the last hundred years of university history, the Harvard report isolates four “Current Traditions in the Arts and Humanities”: “(i) skeptical, detached critique; (ii) appreciative but disinterested enjoyment, (iii) enthusiastic identification and engagement, and (iv) artistic making” (29).

These are all given hoary pasts, which make for some strange pairings in the present. Those in Women’s and Gender Studies or African-American Studies may find themselves surprised to be assigned to category (iii) as “engaged enthusiasts” who belong to “Other departments . . . founded since the 1970s” that “are grounded on forms of more recent identification (e.g. gender, race)” (18).  The inference that these disciplines affirm identity without critical analysis of systemic racism and sexism is unfortunate and possibly unintended. (Although it is in keeping with the report’s suggestion that the humanities in general have overvalued specialized critique and at the expense of engagement and identification.) Similarly, those who have learned from the Frankfurt School tradition of immanent critique may be surprised to find it identified with “skeptical detachment and critique” and  “post-WWII . . . pessimism about universal humanism” (19).

Predictably, the authors analytically separate the four strands only to demonstrate the need for their balanced relation. My complaint is not so much with this procedure as it is with the cracked understanding of the present it produces. Disciplines like Gender Studies and African-American studies derive from historical uses of categories of race and gender to administer populations more clearly than they do from the tradition of Romantic identification. The Frankfurt School is better known for its powerful and influential account of the difference mass media make to human social relations that it is for its critique of  “universal humanism.” Each of these endeavors represents an important meeting point of social scientific and humanistic enterprise. But the authors of the Harvard report consistently ignore such interdisciplinary patterns.

If the authors really want an engaged humanities, why wouldn’t they emphasize the past century of their involvement in projects that spanned the university, stretched outside it, and participated in efforts to create and regulate media forms that reach very large audiences?

It is tempting to find a partial explanation in a desire to exaggerate the distinction between the Humanities and the Social Sciences, which the report points out are so successfully recruiting Harvard’s would-be humanists. But in truth, the report has a lot to say about the overlap between these branches of learning. When it works to distinguish humanist epistemologies, it tellingly makes “empirical science” their alternative, presumably to allow the myriad forms of interpretive Social Science to fall, unscathed, through the rhetorical gap between the two. Social Science is a competitor in this view, but not necessarily an antagonist.

The real threat to Harvard’s vision for the Humanities today, as in 1945, lies outside the gates, in the forms of culture the professors believe they do not make or control but wish they could–a belief and a wish structured by a denial of the humanities’ intervention in those very forms of culture. Late in the report, the authors return to the topic of the “Information, Interpretation and the Information Technology Revolution.” At long last, the report acknowledges that humanists might study “‘popular culture'”! And yet: the Harvard authors immediately submerge the popular within an “immensely rich and large” now electronic archive (39). The authors assert that this archive “presents challenges born of new content, new tools, new competence, and new interpretive challenges.”

To belabor the point, these challenges would seem far less radically new, were certain basic twentieth-century realities such as film and television even acknowledged (neither is mentioned in the text). But the truly notable feature of this string of “new” and revolutionary materials is their rhetorical collision with the reports’ overall pitch that no novelty is required of the present, that humanists should look to old traditions and forget twentieth-century conflicts in order to reenergize the project of meaningful general education for freshmen.

The aim of reenergizing general eduction is worthy but the predicates the authors give it are wrong. The effort to segregate a humanist tradition from engagements with histories of population administration and mass media is a step backwards. Although the report is eager to see the culture wars recede in the rearview mirror (28), it remains locked in the terms that produced that conflict. Exactly like their 1945 forebears, these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.