Oh, the Humanities – Can They be Saved?

Locally and nationally, college and university students are flocking to programs they perceive to be pathways to jobs while they forego studies of languages, history, art and philosophy. But at what cost?


Some kids announce they’ve eloped, been nabbed shoplifting or that they’re calling from rehab and sorry about the car.

Emily Golling’s phone call of heartbreak? On a winter night in 2013, she dialed home to Penn Hills from Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., and told her mom she switched plans. Forget the career-friendly degree in the hard sciences, she told her mom. Emily had decided to major in philosophy.

Frances Fonzi listened to her daughter explain her dreams, her love of the intricacies of human reasoning, the search for meaning in life — even if none of the big philosophy firms would be hiring this year.

“Good,” she told her daughter. “So, when you’re working at McDonald’s, you can tell me why I ordered the fries and what they mean.”

And that is the educational enigma: The Humanities, the studies that laid the foundation for language and thought, the stuff that wrote our narrative as a species and sang its praises in poetry, is missing two things: students and respect. From languages to history to art to philosophy, no field matches the capacity of the humanities to enrich an intellect and round out a person — and to do it with such little immediate promise of a return on investment. Therein lies the problem: students now are investing in careers instead of educations.

While some universities are deleting entire majors and others are trying new ways to stimulate regrowth, the question, “What happened to the Humanities?” has continued to baffle academics for more than a decade. Academics with their roots in the ’60s and ’70s remember when a dazzling 17 percent of all college degrees were in the Humanities. Midway into the ’70s, that figure plunged into a trough that, give a few percentage points up or down, hasn’t nudged past the single digits in a generation. Robert Townsend, who runs the Washington, D.C. office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, figures the 50-year rise and fall is the product of a time of intellectual ferment followed by an era of economic stasis.

“There was a lot of excitement around big questions being answered and discussed in the humanities,” he says. History was being challenged and rewritten. Travel was breaking down American isolation, meaning people wanted to speak new languages.

Novels and films were treading new and controversial paths. All of this was happening in the field of the Humanities. Townsend recalls a question a former boss asked: “What are the big, exciting questions of today?” Now, chances are, the answer will involve software wonders and genetic engineering or, in less rarified fields, who’s about to be tossed off “Celebrity Apprentice.” (“Aristotle? You’re fired.”)

“You never know who could be the next Beethoven or the next Michelangelo, or the next Yeats.” – Washington and Jefferson College Senior Philosophy Major Emily Golling

But there is another version of the story, one with a longer timeline. This version argues that while the quality of the Humanities might be in decline, its numbers aren’t as grim.

Benjamin Schmidt, a Northeastern University professor who helped the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to track the trend, notes its starting point was 1967 — the apparent peak time for Humanities — because that was the point at which the federal government assembled computerized data on degrees. Working by hand, he went back to 1948, where an average of 10 percent of degrees were in the Humanities.

So what is going on here? Why are schools such as Clarion University of Pennsylvania shedding programs in French, German and music education? How is it that schools such as Robert Morris University, highly regarded not only for business and technology but the arts as well, are holding seminars to attract young African-American men into science but not to theater programs? The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which includes 14 universities around the state, has retrenched in ways that suggest the Humanities not only are falling out of focus but also that in the next five years the number of programs will be reduced even further statewide, as courses and majors are placed in “moratorium” — meaning current enrollees will be allowed to complete their majors or minors before the programs are discontinued altogether.

The number of programs in moratorium, or discontinued, since 2012 reads like a casualty list from the culture wars: Theater, French, studio art, music history, Spanish, Latin, comparative literature and religious studies. Indiana University of Pennsylvania has discontinued its bachelor’s degree in German. California University put a moratorium on new enrollees in secondary French Education and French language. Clarion set aside Library Science and Edinboro put moratoriums on programs in Spanish, Spanish education, German and theater arts. Closer to home, the University of Pittsburgh’s Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences took a 10-percent budget cut over two years and suspended its doctoral programs in Classics, Religious Studies and German.

The answer — or part of it — might be found in a national poll RMU conducted this spring. A stunning 82 percent of respondents said colleges and universities should focus at least as much — if not more — on job training and career preparation as on academics. Says Jonathan Arac, a lifelong scholar of literature and head of the University of Pittsburgh Humanities Center: “We still haven’t figured out what the balance is that we wish between education as an opportunity for human development and education as a necessity for employment.”

Emily Golling is trying to work it out for herself. As insurance, the W&J senior doubled up with a second major in psychology. Her capstone project — a major work required of all graduates — dealt with the question of free will. Working summers at a coffee house a few blocks from campus, she thinks about her choice and discusses plans to use her dual major along with a minor in neuroscience to build a career for herself. She also shares her gratitude that her mom, for all her joking, cared more that her daughter feel happy in her life than set in her career path.

“I have enough friends in college [whose] parents have decided their fates,” Golling says. “You’re going to become a doctor. You’re going to do this.” She thinks back on her lunch-table companions at Oakland Catholic High School. One is studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Another is completing her degree in engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Twin sisters won scholarships to Boston College. One studies medical science, the other — she smiles at this — English.

“Hey,” she says, “you never know who could be the next Beethoven or the next Michelangelo, or the next Yeats.”

A moment later, she is back behind the counter, pouring coffee and dreaming big. In a world ruled by mathematics and hemmed in by dismal science, somebody has to do the dreaming. But at what cost?

photo via flickr creative commons


Before he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003-09, Dana Gioia doubled the sales of Jell-O by developing and selling the idea of cutting the gelatin into cute shapes. The man behind Jell-O Jigglers and a grand commercial campaign also, all of that time, was writing terse, hewn stanzas of poetry that followed traditional rules of meter and rhyme, laying a fixed gaze on small moments bounded by the vastness of human feeling. Today, he instructs students in poetry and public culture at the University of Southern California. Professor Gioia invites us to think about this: There was a time poets walked among us instead of huddling in faculty lounges.

“People don’t understand how different it was 50 years ago, when novelists, philosophers, poets, composers were frequent guests in the media. Their voice was valued by society,” Gioia says. “I love this country. I am proud to be an American. But I feel our country has become grossly materialistic and obsessed with novelty rather than substance.”

But if American life is on an arc toward the louche and vulgar, Gioia thinks much of the problem lies in an academia that first desiccates its subject before studying it. During the past 40 years, he says, professors have made the Humanities less interesting, turning them into pre-professional classes for the next generation of academics and turning out graduates who are able to speak with authority on tiny patches of the cultural landscape.

“Parents have almost never been happy that their children major in the Humanities. Most parents want their kids to become doctors, lawyers, business people. Yet students historically went to other undergraduate subjects. Why? Because they enjoyed them,” Gioia says. “They thought they could figure out their lives after graduation. The reason these students no longer are in literature classes is: Most students feel the literature classes are abstract, boring and irrelevant.”

“It’s not that people in the Humanities don’t get jobs. It’s just that the pathway to jobs isn’t as clearly marked.” – Don Bialostosky, head of the University of Pittsburgh English department

The idea of education tied to democracy is a recent development in human history. The idea that written words or abstract ideas could change the material condition of humans emerged slowly, and on occasion it has been easy to miss. Anna Gibson teaches English literature at Duquesne University. She points to her specialty, 19th-century British novels, as both world-changing and, just maybe, hard to market. The role of the novel in 19th-century history defines much of present-day history. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and sparked a firestorm. When Lincoln met her, he greeted her as the lady who started the Civil War. Works of Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Elizabeth Gaskell became the starting points for debates over democracy and social reform. Not one of these concepts, she says, can be monetized.

Gibson recalls one exchange that haunts her. She was teaching a literature course to non-major undergrads. A young woman — a biology major — stopped by to rave about the course and the way Gibson wove the concept of narrative into so many levels of life. “She said, ‘I wish I could be an English major, but my parents won’t let me. I need to become a doctor.’”

This loss of learning because it gives pleasure, a kind of pleasure that makes students not something but someone, has implications far beyond faculty employment figures. It is a shift that pulls a society from a time poets held jobs outside the academy, and a college education in any degree seemed inviting because it built not a trade-ready technician, but a man or woman with a full character, intellect and creative thought.

“If we look at this in a sort of large history of university education,” says Gibson, “this question of economic value is such a new idea. We’re talking about a system that has its roots in the Middle Ages. I, to some extent, want to hold onto an idea of a value that is not just economic, but that is cultural.” 

To which the job market seems to be saying, “Good luck with that.” Rising student debt, combined with an economy so unsteady that analysts actually use such terms as “return on investment” referring to different college majors, has stripped the charm from the idea of learning for its own sake.

“It’s not that people in the Humanities don’t get jobs,” explains Don Bialostosky, head of Pitt’s English department. “It’s just that the pathway to jobs isn’t as clearly marked.”

It is a strange thing to consider, but on Pitt’s campus, 2015-2016 is officially The Year of the Humanities. The provost has set aside $100,000 to promote efforts to show other disciplines how the broad and seemingly unquantifiable disciplines of language and arts connect with the hard facts of medicine, business, engineering and mathematics.

“This is a time when the national discourse is that the humanities are in decline,” says Bialostosky, who will chair the yearlong series. 

Planned events include several guest speakers, among them Theresa Brown, a clinical nurse and author who has written extensively on health care-related issues and spoken about ethics in health care and the value of the Humanities to health care professions; and Manil Suri, an author and mathematics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who with a drama instructor developed a cross-disciplinary course entitled “Mathematics and What It Means to be Human” and later a play about that experience. The play also will be performed at Pitt.

photo courtesy of saint vincent college'S website


Saint Vincent College sits in the foothills of the Laurel Mountains in Latrobe, anchored by a brick basilica erected by Benedictine monks who arrived in the middle of the 19th century and opened an abbey, a parish and a brewery. Saint Vincent stands out for a few reasons, not the least of them its insistence on resisting the late 20th-century impulse to appoint itself a university — a measure that seemed to raise the self-esteem of many colleges. Possibly, the monks recognized that if their faith’s leader is chosen by the College of Cardinals, a humble, Catholic institution in the hometown of Fred Rogers — who liked you just the way you are — didn’t need to be a university. Instead, Saint Vincent thrives on its reputation as a traditional liberal-arts institution. It is then a burning irony that its most celebrated graduate is Herbert Boyer, the man who discovered recombinant DNA — the foundations of modern genetic engineering.

On a recent day, John Smetanka, the school’s academic dean, pondered the spike in majors in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. When Smetanka started at Saint Vincent in 1997, he says, “Students then were a little more focused on just learning. That being said, there was still a lot of career anxiety: What am I going to do when I graduate? What should I do when I graduate?”

This school year, his department is conducting its annual survey of incoming students, asking why they are there, what they seek and how they hope college will shape them.

“More and more,” he says, “students rank career and vocational concerns as No. 1, No. 2, No. 3.” Saint Vincent’s system has a built-in corrective to career monomania. Every student, no matter the major, must take three English courses — one of them a literature course. Along with at least one pre-calculus level math course, every student must take a trio of courses in theology.

Saint Vincent isn’t the only one trying to lure pupils back to the Humanities. At Carlow University, students must take part in the “Carlow Compass” for the school’s liberal-arts curriculum. Its four points are wisdom, justice, expression and natural science; students must take multiple courses in such areas as theology, philosophy, English and history. Many students pick up Humanities minors along the way. At Chatham University, students also take Humanities courses for general education requirements. They must take classes in arts, Humanities and social sciences, in addition to mathematics and science. These colleges seek to expose students to as many academic paths as possible, rather than corralling them into a single field of study.

In western Pennsylvania, economic anxiety remains palpable — a legacy not only of the Great Recession of 2008 but also of the collapse of the steel industry three decades earlier. The sense that, in a pinch, art and culture are the first to fall remains palpable with men such as William Snyder. He has taught English Literature at Saint Vincent since 1977, at one point referring to his technique as “literary science.” His courses are not easy, and he’s proud of that. He speaks of the danger of what is going on in ways that project into a future in which successful business and physics majors might choose their artwork not because it is beautiful but because it matches the living-room couch.

Snyder worries that a general decline in Humanities appreciation will presage a general decline in the quality of human beings. Years ago, he took a busload of students to The National Gallery in Washington. The museum was featuring the greats among abstract artists: Jackson Pollock, Milton Avery, Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler.

“There was a student there who was already into medical school. He says, ‘You know what? I just don’t get it. This stuff is awful. I don’t see why there’s any fuss over it,’” Snyder recalls. “And I’m saying, ‘You poor creature. You’re going to be rich. You’re going to be influential upon many persons in life, and there’s a hole in your humanity.’” 

photo courtesy of washington & jefferson college'S website


Back at the coffee shop in Washington, Pa., Emily Golling is explaining her strategy. To study the thing she loves, she’s also studying the things she needs. There’s the double-major in psychology and the minor in neuroscience. Possibly, she could be of use as an expert on thought and motive. She consulted a professor.

“He does a lot of work with the court as far as psych evaluations for inmates and custody battles,” she explains. “So when a professional comes to the stand and gives their two cents on the evaluation, that’s what my professor does. And that’s what I intend to do professionally.”

She’ll need a Ph.D. to do so. While attending Harvard in 1967, Pitt professor Arac made a discovery about that degree. “The single, biggest negative income predictor for a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa student … was getting a Ph.D. That’s not a Ph.D. in English. That was a Ph.D. in any subject whatever.”

Maybe a dreamer just can’t win. Golling is, appropriately enough, philosophical about that. “As long as I’m happy,” she says. “If that means living in a small apartment in a shady part of town and eating Ramen noodles three times a week, so be it. But if I’m doing something that makes me happy, I don’t care.”  

Dennis B. Roddy is a freelance journalist and former special assistant in the Pennsylvania Office of the Governor. A longtime staff writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he also has written for a number of regional and national publications. Elaina Zachos contributed.


Categories: Community Feature, From the Magazine, Hot Reads