Skip to main content

You've heard the case 1,000,000 times: The humanities are dying. With Justin Stover's recent essay in American Affairs, "There Is No Case for the Humanities," you can make that 1,000,001.

But in this essay there's something different: Stover, who teaches at the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh, doesn't try to overstate the humanities. He argues that the humanities are "no more or less relevant now than they've ever been." It's just that now, as universities become corporate boot camps churning out productive science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) students, the humanities can no longer compete under the new rules. To try to do so is to engage in self-defeat. "The justification for the humanities only makes sense within a humanistic framework," Stover writes. "Outside of it, there is simply no case."

Many a scholar will have a hard time admitting this point, but, beyond the academy, there's not a single skill set that would be enhanced by reading Virgil. A mechanic or surgeon who reads Virgil will be neither a better mechanic or surgeon—nor a better human being. He'll just be a mechanic or surgeon who enjoys Virgil. When it comes to being relevant to a larger purpose beyond ourselves, there is no case to be made for reading Virgil.

Unfortunately, we persist in making our cases in response to the standard attacks. Conventional critiques of the humanities—critiques that many of us in the humanities concede—condemn over-specialization, over-production, and too little teaching. Stover demurs, insisting that such realities are the necessary outcomes when humanities scholars hunker down and do what we do: Pursue intellectual and aesthetic pleasure and, when the opportunity arises, share it with students.

It's true that much of the scholarship that professors in the humanities produce is micro-focused and barely relevant to larger social concerns. It is also true that we churn out and recycle material into an endless stream of edited volumes, obscure journals, and esoteric book series. We would do well to more readily admit these claims. But these critiques are effectively worthless because ameliorating them by broadening our scope, publishing less, and teaching more classes wouldn't help make a positive case for the humanities. It would only make professors more like high school teachers.

The dangerous outcome of taking these critiques to heart is that we end up defensively making vain attempts to be relevant. Efforts to justify our work in a university culture that deems us most useful as fodder for advertising bromides are destined to seem strained and disingenuous.

To wit: We say that exposure to the humanities leads to a more meaningful life, a deeper appreciation of the truth, better critical thinking skills, or a predilection for deeper empathy. These assertions might be true in some cases—but they're not necessarily true. The pursuit of other interests could just as likely produce these beneficial results. Plus, an education in the humanities could make a person selfish, confused, totally biased, and even miserable. (Having taught in the humanities for almost 20 years, you can take my word on this point.)

Stover ultimately rests his "non-case" for the humanities on two important observations. The first is that humanists comprise a sort of "class" that does what it does because we enjoy the arts and want others to enjoy the arts too. We're not interested in being relevant so much as we are interested in being emulated or having our work consumed for pleasure.

"Humanists," Stover writes, "are doing what they have always done, trying to bring students into a class loosely defined around a broad constellation of judgment and tastes." I think this is exactly right. When I teach undergraduates Thoreau and Emerson, I want them to enjoy Thoreau and Emerson. I want to influence them to explore the world of ideas because doing so is an inherently pleasurable (and financially cheap) thing to do. I guess you could say that I want them to emulate me.

Whatever beneficial "outcomes"—an ominous buzzword in our world—follow from that enjoyment is gravy on the educational feast. But measurable outcomes are not what I'm after. Scholars in the humanities who seek to be "relevant" end up kowtowing to commerce in ways that are, frankly, embarrassing.

Stover's second and closely related point is that, while society at large may have no need for a class of humanists who love delving into Thoreau and Emerson, the university (if for all the wrong reasons) evidently still does require this rarified class. Stover writes:

The most prestigious universities in the West are still those defined by their humanities legacy, which surrounds them with an aura of cultural standing that their professional purpose no longer justifies. The humanities continue to lend cachet to educational credentials, granting an elite status worth far more than any "marketable skills." That is why every technical institute with higher aspirations has added humanities programs: Accounting or law or engineering can be learned in many places, but courtliness is passed along only in the university, and only through the humanities—and everyone knows it.

The university, if only motivated to do so by fear of cultural shaming or status decline, harbors the humanities to ensure prestige, ersatz or otherwise. If you've ever been to a recent college graduation you will notice that there's a relatively small cadre of professors who, all puffed out and head-capped like flamboyant jesters, take the academic regalia business very seriously. That's usually us, the humanists, the desperate torch-bearers for what a university wants us to think it's all about: Tradition. Our clownish garb reflects our desperation to protect our shrinking patch of turf.


Stover's essay is wonderfully insightful. But the numbers in the United States throw cold water on his final, optimistic claim that the humanities will be able to rest on their prestigious laurels.

As of 2015, only 12 percent of undergraduates at colleges and universities in the U.S. graduated with a degree in the humanities. A 2017 analysis of the changing concentrations of Harvard University sophomores found alarming declines in the humanities. It also found a corresponding rise in STEM disciplines. Between 2008 and 2016, history majors went from 231 to 136; English majors went from 236 to 144; art history majors went from 63 to 36; anthropology majors went from 126 to 43; comparative literature majors went from 48 to 16; and classics majors from 41 to 26. By contrast, applied mathematics went from 101 to 279; electrical engineering went from 0 to 39; computer science from 85 to 386; and statistics from 17 to 173. These numbers mirror national trends. In my own discipline, history, majors have dropped by 25 percent between 2001 and 2016, a figure made especially alarming by the fact that it's a decline from 2.08 percent to 1.54 percent of all undergraduate degrees. In 1970 it was close to 6 percent. At my own university it's around 1 percent.

What do these figures suggest? For one, that Stover's confidence in the status conferred by the humanities may be appropriate for his medieval-era stomping grounds of Oxford and Edinburgh, but not for U.S. universities. When an institution with the prestige of Harvard watches the humanities decline to a statistical sliver within its own ivied walls, and it does so in a country where tradition is measured in decades, it may be time to fess up to the fact that status over here is a fickle beast with little interest in preserving tradition.

Consider the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To my knowledge, that university's exalted status depends on relentless innovation rather than the preservation of a humanistic tradition. I'd venture that the vast majority of colleges and universities in the U.S. see themselves moving more in the orbit of MIT than Harvard. That is, they place less weight on "the aura of cultural standing" conferred by the humanities and more on the marketable applications of pragmatic, profit-minded research programs.

Stover underplays this element of higher education in the U.S. He acknowledges that, "it is not the humanities that we have lost faith in, but the economic, political, and social order that they have been made to serve." And then he concludes: "perhaps we only demand a case for the humanities because we cannot fathom having to make a case for anything else."

Well, I'm afraid we can. In fact, I'm absolutely certain that almost every high-ranking administrator at every university in the U.S. wakes up every morning prepared to fathom the case that the university is about serving the innovative needs of a globalizing economy—and if gutting the humanities would further that goal, they'd look at the numbers and make the call. If only quietly, it happens all the time. Can you imagine, beyond the university, a swell of popular opinion rushing to defend the department of comparative literature—and those 16 Harvard sophomores!—from oblivion?


With the traditional humanities being squeezed to the margins of university life, all the while banking its survival on nostalgic prestige, it seems appropriate to consider a possible likelihood: college education without Virgil, Shakespeare, Emerson, or Thoreau—or at least a college education where the humanistic pursuits become the equivalent of intramural Frisbee football. If this happens, would this mean the death of the humanities?

I don't think it would.

It's worth recalling that the only feature that Stover, who teaches in Great Britain, thinks will keep the humanities from rotting away is the presence of a class of humanists who thrive within the university as a symbol of its original mission. The hypothesis perhaps makes sense for universities founded in the 13th century. But in the U.S., where most universities are less then a century old, and the notion of class instinctively raises hackles, Stover's argument could backfire.

Indeed, one might turn Stover's point on its head and suggest that the reason the humanities come under such fire (from all sides) is not necessarily that they are irrelevant. Instead it's that, as a group of professors ensconced in an ivory tower, they evoke the notion of a class. As such, they too easily become an easy target marred by the taint of a concept we have no tolerance for on this side of the Atlantic: elitism.

When the book lover opens up a scholarly journal on literature and finds "The Political Procedural: The Novel's Contribution to the Rise of Nonpartisanship and the Abandonment of Reconstruction," or when the history buff goes to a leading history journal and comes across "Beautiful Urbanism: Gender, Landscape, and Contestation in Latino Chicago's Age of Urban Renewal," he might feel a little excluded.

This is not to suggest that these articles aren't fascinating and insightful, but rather to indicate the process whereby general sentiment against the humanities in the U.S. begins to go sour. Combine that process with the kabuki moves we in the humanities must make these days to convince university administrators of our relevance, and you can see why the general public might be OK with our demise within the walls of higher education.

And what about the humanities outside the walls of higher education? This is where I have a little hope. America is often deemed anti-intellectual. I would never totally disagree with this assessment. But I do genuinely wonder to what extent that characterization reflects the dynamic outlined above—one whereby a cadre of humanities scholars uses its position in the university not to anchor the university to its founding mission, but to cultivate a cult of aesthetic and intellectual exploration that keeps those outside the university at bay.

In other words, before we lament the death of the humanities, or write that development off as the result of anti-intellectualism, shouldn't we consider how the humanities thrive—or could thrive—beyond institutions of higher education?

A couple of months ago I wrote about a podcast called Literature and History. What amazed me was the depth of the podcast's content, the accessibility of the presentation, the scholarly emphasis on documentation and cross-referencing, the availability of a written transcript, and the overall thrill of learning for the sake of learning. The podcast, only a couple of years old, has had over a half a million downloads. All in all, it represents an unmitigated success in democratic and institution-free education.

Think about it: no professors, no universities, no classrooms, no tuition, no accountability. Just a hugely ambitious podcaster—who works in the software industry—and a lot of followers who share his passion for the likes of Horace, Catullus, Homer, and Sappho. As a student of the podcast, I can honestly say it exceeds any approach to knowledge that I have experienced in a complete career in higher education.

I said that I was amazed to discover this small world of humanistic exploration. Maybe I shouldn't have been. As such niches of enlightenment emerge in the vast realm of Internet content, as more and more archives enter the public sphere as digitized and freely accessible collections (see here and here), and as the humanities, decoupled from exclusionary institutions, shed the (perhaps undeserved) burden of elitism, Stover—not to mention the rest of us who have a home in the university—might find his argument that there is no case to be made for the humanities to be more true than he ever anticipated.

And, finally, we'll all be free to be as irrelevant as we want to be.