Addressing a Decline in Humanities Enrollment

How to reinvigorate the humanities at Harvard is the subject of new faculty reports

Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities

Enrollment in the humanities is down at Harvard College—and nationally, the number of bachelor’s degrees in the field has fallen by half from 1966 to 2010, from 14 percent to 7 percent of all degrees taken. The news media periodically highlight such statistics and raise the cry that the humanities are in decline, perhaps reflecting diminished relevance to contemporary society. Theories offered to explain the trend include preprofessionalism among students on financial aid worried about a tough economic climate and technological gadgetry’s relentless challenge to sustained observation and reflection.

To tackle this challenge, dean of arts and humanities Diana Sorensen asked an interdisciplinary steering committee to examine the role of the humanities at Harvard. In the 18 months since, the committee’s work grew to include 40 faculty members who formed several working groups, including one focused on strengthening the undergraduate humanities curriculum, and another that examined the role and purpose of humanistic learning in the academy. Those groups have now released reports detailing their findings.

“The point of an undergraduate education in the humanities,” Sorensen explained in an interview, “is to develop habits of mind, to develop a sense of how to reason rigorously, how to express ideas in a compelling way, and how to write well. And then to have at your disposal the categories through which to approach complex problems. We want to make that clear, and then find a way to draw students into our courses.”

The working group, co-chaired by Loker professor of English James Simpson and professor of philosophy Sean Kelly, explains how the humanities contribute to the University’s mission, including a history of humanistic learning that “also attempts to define how humanists think,” Sorensen said. The report, The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, delves into the intellectual traditions within the humanities, including their important role in critiquing society and imagining alternative futures, a quality that has made the field, throughout history, the report says, “the scourge of a culture or its greatest hope.” But the report also includes “a lot of data about students,” says Sorensen. Among the data-driven findings: the percentage of humanities concentrators fell during the last 60 years from 24 to 17 percent, dropping between 2003 and 2012 from 21 to 17 percent. When history concentrators are factored in (history is considered part of the humanities, although at Harvard it is technically in the division of social sciences), the decline in concentrators since 1954 is even more precipitous, falling from 36 to 20 percent of undergraduates.

But the report also says that “two standard arguments” raised against the humanities—that the decline is Harvard-specific and caused by financial aid—do not withstand scrutiny. Peer institutions are experiencing identical declines, and financial aid has little impact on what concentrations undergraduates ultimately choose. What the data show instead is that, during the last eight years,

more than half of students who as pre-Freshmen indicate an intention to concentrate in a Humanities concentration end up in a different division: 50% graduate in a social science, 27% in either Government (11%), Psychology (8%), or Economics (8%). Students stating an intention to concentrate in a Humanities discipline are much less loyal to that intention at concentration declaration (57% exodus) than students stating an intention to concentrate in a social science (19% exodus).

These negative figures direct humanists’ attention to two areas in particular: the freshman experience, which is where we lose a striking number of students who matriculate with an intention to concentrate in a Humanities discipline; and the social sciences, who draw our intenders in striking numbers.

On a more positive note, the report states that student satisfaction with their concentration is consistently higher in the humanities than in other divisions, and that 93 percent of students who declare a humanities concentration remain faithful to that choice. The conclusion? “We have less a ‘crisis’ in the humanities in Harvard College”, the report states, “…than a challenge and opportunity…”; and “we should arrest and reverse the decline of concentrator numbers by focusing on freshmen.”

The curricular working group, led by professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of literature Julie Buckler and Reischauer Institute professor of cultural history Shigehisa Kuriyama, has tried, Sorensen said, “to think about the curriculum as a platform to create courses that undergraduates care about: how do you build a meaningful life, what do you think about war, or what is the meaning of love?” At the same time, such a curriculum should “forge ties that connect departments” to “make us as faculty feel less siloed, and to give our students a sense of a social and academic collective to which they can belong.”

The group has made practical recommendations, based on their colleagues’ data, by focusing on two central challenges: reinvigorating student recruitment, particularly during the freshman year; and improving integration within the division of arts and humanities.

To attract student interest during the initial semesters of undergraduate study, the report calls for new gateway courses that will offer a clear point of entry into arts and humanities concentrations, and provide a common introductory experience that can be shared by a large number of students. In particular, the report reveals the impending introduction of three humanities frameworks courses, to debut this fall: The Art of Listening, The Art of Reading, and The Art of Looking. These “pre-disciplinary” courses are intended to introduce students to fundamental problems, histories, and critical methods through intensive study of exemplary texts (such as the critical essays of Roland Barthes), sounds, images and objects. The report also calls for the development of a full-year arts and humanities survey course for freshman and sophomores, to be offered in 2014-15.

All these courses, and a few other divisional arts and humanities offerings, says the report, should count for concentration credit. Furthermore, to bolster the retention of likely humanities concentrators, the report suggests improved advising and outreach, and enhanced coordination and collaboration among clusters of freshman seminars in the arts and humanities. Looking further ahead, the report suggests developing internships that show students the desirability of humanities degrees, both for jobs and for graduate study (half of admitted medical-school students, for example, have concentrated in one of the humanities), and the facilitation of humanities study as a secondary field, in combination with physics or chemistry, for example, perhaps using the new introductory courses as a foundation for such study.

The curriculum working group’s second major recommendation involves improving integration within the division of arts and humanities itself by reviving an arts and humanities section that aggregates the division’s classes in the course offerings:

Reviving an Arts and Humanities section starting in 2013-14 will facilitate cross-divisional teaching and offer greater visibility to courses that transcend the cultural and/or disciplinary boundaries into which departments are divided. By encouraging cross-disciplinary teaching initiatives that reach beyond our Division and even beyond FAS, this new Arts and Humanities section will enable our Division to promote intellectual exchange and a more active culture of collaboration across the University.

Collectively “these reports,” wrote Sorensen in a letter accompanying their release, “in pinpointing some clear historical trends and definitively separating facts from untested assumptions, provide a sturdy foundation on which to base our future efforts. Though varied in tack and emphasis, these efforts share a common goal: the collective assertion of the humanities as an essential foundational element in American liberal arts education.”

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