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When I first began my teaching career, I often explained to my students the ways the humanities would help prepare them for the world of work; fostering creativity, communication, and critical thinking. I laid out all the reasons why reading, writing, and speaking are tools that made them competitive applicants to college or in the job market. After all, most public discourse around the humanities framed it as frivolous and indulgent, so why would students feel differently? Even President Obama, a man whom I admired at the time, poked fun at it while speaking at a General Electric plant, joking "But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree" (Obama, 2014). It was a statement that captured the general consensus about the purpose of education: develop marketable skills to get a job and get paid. With that cultural frame firmly in place, the humanities just can't compete with technically and technologically oriented STEM degrees.
However, recent social, cultural, and political events have sounded a clarion call for the importance of the humanities. It's a call that has coincided with my own personal exploration of the deeper "Why?" questions of my discipline. If we are to navigate the burgeoning storm of unrest and upheaval we face in these complex times, a renewed emphasis will need to be placed on the humanities. Not only as a space where one can hone the skills needed to thrive in a market economy, but as a field where we can better learn how to understand ourselves, each other, and our world—as an opportunity to make meaning and make sense of our lives in these anxiety-inducing times.
The term "Humanities" is equally obvious and opaque. Though its subject of study is clearly human beings, understanding what that entails requires closer examination. According to the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, it can be defined as follows.
The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.
Each of the disciplines shared in this definition and shown in Figure 1 deals with the study of the human experience from both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary perspectives.
Despite its utilitarian purpose of attracting more students to join their program, Oxford's promotional video "Studying the Humanities" does an excellent job presenting the role and function of the humanities in a modern university setting: pursuing disciplinary expertise while accounting for the transdisciplinary nature of the human experience (0:21-0:44).
Throughout the video, there is a focus on the more philosophical and theoretical orientation toward knowledge that shapes the humanities. When viewed in the abstract, the benefits of these humanistic pursuits are self-evident. As Spanish Philosopher Ortega y Gasset said "humans need the imaginary, the spiritual, and the beautiful in order to find meaning in life” (David, 1996).
Treating student self-actualization as the telos of curriculum and instruction, as opposed to technocratic skills acquisition, aligns with Maslow's concept of intrinsic learning and Rogers's concept of student-centered learning. Both of which have become pillars of humanistic theories and paradigms of education that assert "...students are not merely rat-like response organisms that learn technological knowledge and skills in response to rewarding stimuli" but rather "learn only when they seek to actualize their inner human potential" (DeCarvalho, 1991 p. 100). While one could certainly employ humanistic methods while teaching math and the natural sciences, they are woven into the very fabric of the humanities.
Considering the increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide plaguing, perhaps even caused by, modernity, one would think such pursuits would be in more demand than ever (Hidaka, 2012). Unfortunately, that isn't the case. In fact, there is continued skepticism, even hostility towards majoring in humanities-oriented disciplines (Nussbaum, 2017). Questions about the role, purpose, and function of education are nothing new, however. Thinkers from Plato to Rousseau, John Dewey to Foucault have all offered interpretations centered on our individual and societal relationship with knowledge. Though this isn't the first time these debates have caused concern, there are changes afoot and alarms being sounded that deserve attention. According to Martha Craven Nussbaum's (2017) Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities "The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in the curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children" (p. 2).
The reasons for this are multifaceted and complex, but one of the most commonly cited contributing factors is the burgeoning dominance of neoliberal values, discourses, and policies over the last few decades. Not to be confused with 20th-century social progressivism, neoliberalism is a political and economic model that "intends to remove the buffer of social welfare as a governmental function in the belief that the market operates most efficiently and effectively without regulation" (Lakes & Carter, 2011, p. 107). On the surface, laissez-faire economic structures have little to do with education. However, its associated values, discourses, and policies have had such an effect on education, especially the humanities, some deem it a full-blown crisis. These effects are summarized in Lakes's and Carter's (2011) "Neoliberalism and Education: An Introduction".
In the neoliberal risk society, young people have to "chase credentials" (Jackson and Bisset 2005), 196) to gain security in future education or workplaces. Failure to achieve is deemed one's own fault, and "human beings are made accountable for their predicaments" (Wilson, 2007 p. 97). Anxieties are heightened by the rapid changes in neoliberal policies such as job outsourcing, corporate downsizing, and international trade agreements that benefit only a few. Faced with choices about educating their children in a political environment, parents are often uninformed, misinformed, and fearful--fueled by media speculation about failing schools, incompetent teachers, and school violence. Under pressure, parents are easily attracted to schemes that appear to satisfy multiple objectives, such as discipline, protection, and greater academic achievement.
Some critics go even farther, claiming "Neoliberalism encourages... suppressing teaching of critical thought that would challenge the rule of capital and keeping learners compliant while at the same time warranting that educational spaces maintain the ideological and economic reproduction that benefits the ruling class" (Oladi, 2013). The Nation's interview with Noam Chomsky explores the roots of neoliberalism and details why he believes it to be a dehumanizing and anti-democratic form of social and political control—essentially, the antithesis of humanities education.
In addition to the systemic and social issues caused by neoliberalism, it has come to affect our actual relationship with knowledge. Instead of advocating for knowledge for its own sake (Arnold, 2006) or as a means to gain access to the forms of discourse that grow and maintain power (Foucault, 1977), it leads to blunt instrumentalism—or "the belief that makes knowledge merely a means to a practical end, or the satisfaction of practical needs" (Dewey et al, 2007 p. 170).
Considering "neoliberalism rejects the very idea of not-for-profit and insists that all values must be measured by the market, the humanities appear valueless" (Shumway, 2017, p. 10) this orientation towards knowledge has been especially damaging to the enrollment in Humanities programs, its social standing within academia, and general societal attitudes towards its pursuits.
Inevitably, these systemic, structural, and epistemological issues manifest themselves in education. Though neoliberalism looks beyond industrial conceptions of schooling, adopting a poor imitation of Silicon Valley's rhetoric and aesthetic, it doesn't set its ethical or philosophical sights much higher. American psychologist Robert Sternberger (1992) sums up our current attitude towards education as increasingly inward gazing and instrumentalized.
Education is seen more as an access route... not so much toward the enhancement of... learning and thinking as towards obtaining through education the best possible credentials for individual socioeconomic advancement. Education is seen not so much as a means of helping society but of helping one obtain the best that society has to offer socially, economically, and culturally. (p. 62)
The goals of neoliberal models of education are reflective of and built for the market rationality that created them. It is about competition. It is about ownership. It is about the individual above all else. YouTuber Sophie Dodge's (2016) video "Neoliberalism & Education" provides a general overview of neoliberalism's effects on education explaining how, in addition to reflecting its values, it also played a role in normalizing and promulgating market-driven attitudes.
In what I felt was the most compelling part of the video, Dodge points out the effects of neoliberalism on students (4:00-4:30). It captured the anxiety, stress, and helplessness my students have shared with me for years—even before the pandemic. Even my most successful students have felt the weight of endless competition and quantification. It saps the joy out of their classes, extra-curricular activities, and even friendships. In a world of market rationality, everything is seen as a performance metric and everyone is seen as a potential competitor. Scholar and critical pedagogue, Henry Giroux (check out his Conference to Restore Humanity keynote speech) takes this critique even further, framing our current neoliberal policy prescription, values, and discourses as a full-blown "war on youth" which he details in a 2014 TAFTtalks interview.
Giroux details the ideological "soft war" and structural "hard war" against the youth, detailing ways students are disenfranchised, even incarcerated as a result of market rationality that allows little room for self-expression or social justice (2:28-5:05). This threat is further exacerbated by the fact the neoliberal reform movement that has shaped the last few decades of education policy and discourse was actually bipartisan in nature–with presidents from Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama all sharing relatively similar views; views that ultimately damaged the profession, weakened public schools, and delivered negligible results for learners (Ali, 2019).
In the absence of a coherent and progressive vision for education there is a growing right wing movement around a “classical education” that purports to reject the waning neoliberal consensus and return schooling to the pursuit of wisdom, truth, and beauty. Taken at face value, such a call doesn’t sound too different to the one advocated in this article. However, as De La Cour (2023) claimed in her recent Jacobin article “Right-wing classical schooling advocates’ tendency to hark back to an imaginary time when things were purer and more virtuous lines up with what Italian historian Umberto Eco referred to as ur-fascism’s (eternal fascism’s) cult of tradition and rejection of modernism.” Or, in the words of Eco (1995) himself “There can be no advancement of learning,” because “truth has been already spelled out once and for all.” Totalizing narratives like these, especially ones that venerate tradition, capital-T truth, and purity above all else, are antithetical to liberatory teaching and learning. Especially when one considers such calls are being made alongside concerted efforts to dismantle public education, strip away academic freedom in higher education, and implement ahistorical, nationalist curriculum. These trends clearly illustrate how important it is for progressives to create alternative visions for education that are guided by an enduring sense of humanity, solidarity, and purpose.
Luckily, there's an increased call for education to play a role in recalibrating the cultural values and attitudes that make neoliberalism such a hegemonic power in society. Unsurprisingly, this is occurring at a time when the social, political, and economic systems and structures that birthed neoliberalism are rapidly breaking down. The seemingly inevitable march towards cooperative globalization, endless economic growth, and unfettered cultural cohesion has been derailed. In short, it is the perfect time to begin reimagining our society, and more specifically, education.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne professors Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope (2015) articulate a similar vision in their book New Learning. One that focuses on the role education might play in designing a more equitable, just, and human-centered future as we enter into an age of change and upheaval. Professional educators of tomorrow will not be people who simply enact received systems, standards, organizational structures, and professional ethics. In this time of extraordinary social transformation and uncertainty, educators need to consider themselves to be designers of social futures, to search out new ways to address the learning needs of our society, and in doing so to position education at an inarguably central place in society (p. 28).
This new orientation to learning must be accompanied by transformative pedagogies as well. Pedagogies like those discussed in their video "Education as Designs for Social Futures" that detail ways to approach learning that seek to disrupt, not perpetuate, the systems and structures of inequality currently exacerbated by neoliberalism.
Over the course of the video Kalantzis and Cope details ways technology, globalization, changing patterns of human subjectivity, and agendas of equity all create a need for more pedagogical shifts that positions teachers and students alike as potential designers of social futures that can transcend, not replicate, our current education system and social institutions. The details and implications of this approach are more fully articulated in Kalantzis and Cope's recent publication "Towards Education Justice: A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies Revisited."
Looking specifically at the humanities though, it is clear that we cannot go back to a time before neoliberalism, but that doesn't mean the present can't be re-imagined. Instead, it must look to an alternate modernity "that again puts at the forefront questions which a...neoliberal perspective, with its quantitative bias, tends to avoid. These questions such as: What is reality? What is the human being? What is the good life? What is happiness?" (Rafudeen, 2016).
These questions and the related ways of knowing, doing, and thinking about the world are vital if we hope to design better social futures. They are the center of gravity around which each discipline, different though they may be, all orbit. According to Costa (2019) "At its core, this acknowledgment of the value of the humanities can be looked at in three independent, mutually reinforcing levels: the comprehensive knowledge, skills and mindset that come with studying the field, and which are not easily outdated" (p. 3).
Youtuber Then & Now's video essay "Oh The Humanities: A Defense of the Humanities" provides a closer look at why the knowledge, skills, and mindset fostered by the humanities are of vital importance in today's world and beyond. As he states throughout the video, at the heart of the humanities, and the human experience more broadly, lies our insatiable desire for stories: What their role is in society, how they shape our reality, and why we tell them.
The poem by Shelley that closes the video is a beautiful encapsulation of why the humanities must play an integral role in helping us design better social futures. If we are going to move beyond our current moment of instrumentalization and individualism, we are going to need a new societal narrative that can promote the values of justice, inclusion, and solidarity needed to reimagine society.
Thankfully, there are concrete examples of scholars, educators, and professional development facilitators coming together to collaborate in ways that might better integrate humanities perspectives in the K12 classroom. The media element below from the Humanities Texas Programs for Teachers, for example, provides a template for how better cooperation and coordination between disciplines and stakeholder groups can lead to powerful learning experiences for all involved.
The notion of "access" is of vital importance (2:24). Our neoliberal public discourse constantly exposes students to the role, purpose, and function of STEM education. However, the humanities can't count on students to absorb the same ideas from their environment. The only way to free the humanities' potential from the ivory towers of academia and privately funded liberal arts colleges is to get scholars and disciplinarians out into the world and interact with teachers in the field. To keep the humanities alive, those who study it must work more closely with those who teach it and those who teach it must present to students it in ways that invite learners to participate, contribute, and transform it—not merely regurgitate its content and replicate its practices.
Though the problems facing our country, democracy, and education system are plain to see, there is still some disagreement about the underlying causal mechanisms. Carnegie Mellon Professor of English David Shumway (2017), feels "calling someone a neoliberal is an all-purpose political dismissal" that has become so in vogue in left-leaning academic circles as to become cliche and misappropriated. Citing the scourges of "racism, sexism, and status resentment" Shumway believes blaming all of our current social, political, and economic ills on neoliberalism obfuscates the study of the more deeply embedded social and cultural diseases lifting the rising tide of populist and authoritarian sentiment sweeping parts of the country.
Others question if the humanities crisis is a crisis at all. According to data aggregated by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, part of the reason the decline of the humanities feels so sharp, was that it occurred on the back of an aberrant spike in the 1960s, accounting for no less than 10% of all undergraduate degrees. With such high numbers, the decline was inevitable, as shown in the image below.
Though humanities enrollment is down, taking a broader view reveals that not everyone leaving is signing up for pre-professional degrees. In fact, in "...2017–18, postsecondary institutions conferred 1.0 million associate’s degrees. Over two-thirds (69 percent) of these degrees were concentrated in three fields of study: liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities (39 percent, or 398,000 degrees)" (The Condition of Education, 2020). This trend is also shown below in the figure below.
Discerning a coherent narrative from the data is made all the more challenging by the fact different schools seem to be experiencing wildly different trends. While Harvard’s humanities majors have fallen 20% from 2012 and Arizona State University saw their English major numbers decline 50% in the last decade (Heller, 2023), Grove City College has over twice as many English students as Harvard with less than half the student body size. Similarly, the University of Utah Dean Hollis Robbins recently tweeted enrollment in the English major is more popular now than its been in years. More striking still, is the fact UC Berkley has seen a 43% increase in students majoring in the Division of Arts and Humanities compared to five years ago (Fullerton, 2022).
With these reports and data points in place, there is just cause to question whether the humanities are in a full-blown crisis. It does seem our current sociocultural moment is impressing on us why the humanities matters. While anecdote may not suffice for evidence, most of my research turned up droves of articles, think pieces, and data points discussing just how vital the humanities are in our complex, globalized world. It will be important to see if there is a shift in public discourse and academic scholarship after all the harrowing events of the last few years.
Whether or not the humanities' declining admission rates are a crisis to be combated or merely a shift to be acknowledged, there is a shared consensus that they matter deeply. From the Ancient Greek Agora to modern boardrooms to the polling booth, having an intimate knowledge of oneself and their fellow human is wisdom worthy of pursuit. Regardless of the source of the humanities decline, there must be continued time and effort devoted to its preservation. I personally believe the fate of modern education, even modern democracy is intimately tied with that of the humanities. In the media element below, John Lithgow eloquently describes the transformative nature of the arts to help us transcend our own lives and identities and adopt the perspectives and feelings of others through art and performance. They are the types of knowing, doing, and thinking society will need to rediscover and reconnect with our humanity in our current age of fragmentation and division.
To close, Richard Brodhead provides some practical advice for professors, actors, and policymakers whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the humanities, stating: "I fervently believe if those in the humanities want the public to care about them it's worth our time reaching out to the public and making them feel the force of these subjects." I may not have the power to individually change the neoliberal policies that have shaped my adolescence and adult life, I am glad I am in a position to share the wonder of the humanities with my students every single day.
Ali, S. (2019). A Second-Class Workforce: How Neoliberal Policies and Reforms Undermined the Educational Profession. Journal of Curriculum and Teaching, 8(3), 102. https://doi.org/10.5430/jct.v8n3p102
Arnold, M. (2006). Culture and Anarchy. Oxford University Press.
*Costa, Rosário. (2019). The place of the humanities in today’s knowledge society. Palgrave Communications. 5. 10.1057/s41599-019-0245-6.
Cour, N. D. L. (2023, February 15). Neoliberal education reform paved the way for right-wing "Classical education". Jacobin. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from https://jacobin.com/2023/02/desantis-florida-hillsdale-classical-education-neoliberalism
DeCarvalho, R. J. (1991). The humanistic paradigm in education. The Humanistic Psychologist, 19(1), 88–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/08873267.1991.9986754
De La Cour, N. (2023, February 15). Neoliberal education reform paved the way for right-wing "Classical education". Jacobin. Retrieved March 4, 2023, from https://jacobin.com/2023/02/desantis-florida-hillsdale-classical-education-neoliberalism
*Dewey, J., Hester, D. M., & Talisse, R. B. (2007). Essays in Experimental Logic. SIU Press.
Eco, U. (1995, June 22). Ur-fascism. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved March 2, 2023, from https://web.archive.org/web/20170131155837/http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/
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Fullerton, S. (2022, November 1). Defying negative stereotypes, humanities majors are booming at Berkeley. Defying negative stereotypes, humanities majors are booming at Berkeley | Letters & Science. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from https://ls.berkeley.edu/news/defying-negative-stereotypes-humanities-majors-are-booming-berkeley
Heller, N. (2023, February 27). The end of the English major. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 2, 2023, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/06/the-end-of-the-english-major
Hidaka, B. H. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: Explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140(3), 205–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2011.12.036
*Humanities by the Numbers. (2014, October 27). Association of American Colleges & Universities. https://www.aacu.org/aacu_news/aacunews13/august13/facts_figures
Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2012). New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
*Lakes, R. D., & Carter, P. A. (2011). Neoliberalism and Education: An Introduction. Educational Studies, 47(2), 107–110. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131946.2011.556387
*Nussbaum, M. C. (2017). Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities - Updated Edition (The Public Square) (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press.
National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209). (1965, September 29). National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). https://www.neh.gov/about/history/national-foundation-arts-and-humanities-act-1965-pl-89-209
*Oladi, S. (2013). The Instrumentaliziation of Education. The Atlantic Journal of Graduate Studies in Education: Special Edition. Retrieved from: http://ejournal.educ.unb.ca.
*Rafudeen, A. (2016). Human Nature, the Humanities and Neoliberalism. Religion & Theology, 23(1–2), 188–211. https://doi.org/10.1163/15743012-02301014
Remarks by the President on Opportunity for All and Skills for. (2015, July 31). [Press release]. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/30/remarks-president-opportunity-all-and-skills-americas-workers
*Shumway, D. (2017). The University, Neoliberalism, and the Humanities: A History. Humanities, 6(4), 83. https://doi.org/10.3390/h6040083
*Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Schools should nurture wisdom. In B. Z. Presseisen (Ed.), Teaching for intelligence I, 55–82. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing Inc.
*The Condition of Education - Postsecondary Education - Programs, Courses, and Completions - Undergraduate Degree Fields - Indicator May (2020). (2020, May 5). National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cta.asp
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