Invigorating the Humanities

Diana Sorensen

Three new introductory courses in Harvard’s undergraduate arts and humanities curriculum debut this fall. “The Art of Listening,” “The Art of Reading,” and “The Art of Looking” are “predisciplinary” introductions to fundamental problems, histories of meaning, and critical methods in the arts and humanities, effected through intensive study of exemplary sounds, texts, images, and objects. A full-year arts and humanities survey course for freshmen and sophomores will follow in 2014-15. The new courses were developed during an 18-month study of the humanities at Harvard, where enrollments in fields such as English, music, and the visual arts have fallen by half since 1966. Commissioned by Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean of the arts and humanities Diana Sorensen and released as a collection of reports in early June, the Harvard study, which involved 40 faculty members, was reinforced nationally a few weeks later by an American Academy of Arts and Sciences report to Congress.

Both reports found, broadly, a dwindling proportion of students concentrating in the humanities. Theories to explain the decline have ranged from general assertions that the humanities are less relevant to contemporary society (or that technological gadgetry hinders efforts at sustained observation and reflection) to specific economic arguments: that preprofessionalism among undergraduates is rising, for example, either as consequence of a difficult job market, or—in an argument more focused on Harvard and similar institutions—as a consequence of growing numbers of students on financial aid.

But data gathered during the study at Harvard, where the decline has been most pronounced during the past decade, show that financial aid has little impact on which concentrations undergraduates ultimately choose. What the evidence shows instead is that students who indicate an intention to concentrate in a humanities discipline “defect” to other concentrations at a much higher rate than students who plan to study other fields. Among students who do choose to concentrate in humanities, satisfaction is very high (93 percent). “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 point of an undergraduate education in the humanities,” Sorensen explained in an interview with this magazine, “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….We want to make that clear, and then find a way to draw students into our courses.”

To that end, the Rothenberg professor of Romance languages and literatures and of comparative literature continued, the study re-envisions 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?” Such a curriculum should also “forge ties that connect departments” she said, and “give our students a sense of a social and academic collective to which they can belong.”

The hope is that the new gateway courses, by providing a common introductory experience that can be shared by a large number of students, will reinvigorate recruitment, particularly during undergraduates’ first year; and also improve integration within the division of arts and humanities. All three courses, and a few other divisional arts and humanities offerings, should count for concentration credit, the study recommends. Further, to bolster the retention of likely concentrators, the report suggests improved advising and outreach as well as enhanced coordination and collaboration among clusters of freshman seminars in the arts and humanities.

The study also calls for reviving an aggregration of arts and humanities course listings in the online catalog:

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.

Looking further ahead, the study suggests developing internships that show students the desirability of humanities degrees, whether for finding jobs or for pursuing graduate study. (Half of admitted medical-school students, for example, have concentrated in one of the humanities.) Another proposal suggests facilitating an option for humanities study as a secondary field in combination, for example, with physics or chemistry—perhaps using the new introductory courses as a foundation. (According to its catalog description, “The Art of Looking,” taught by professors Robin Kelsey and Jennifer L. Roberts, will hone “skills of visual, material, and spatial analysis through encounters with aesthetic objects from Harvard’s collections” and also “approach looking through a consideration of key technologies from its history, such as the telescope, the television, and the easel painting.”)

“Though varied in tack and emphasis,” Sorensen said, “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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