Declining numbers of students majoring in the humanities have led Harvard to reconsider its academic poilicies.
With a recently released report, Harvard University has weighed in on the crisis of the humanities, offering some surprising diagnoses. Mapping the Future is a thoughtful statement, crafted diplomatically in the hope of reassuring the often-fractious humanities community, while laying the groundwork for a potentially significant reconstruction of humanities education.
Declining humanities majors worry the Harvard faculty. In 1954, 36 percent of undergraduates at Harvard and Radcliffe College majored in the humanities. By 2012, that figure had fallen to 20 percent. Yet Harvard does fairly well when compared to national figures, which show a decline from 14 percent humanities B.A.’s awarded in 1966 to a mere 7 percent in 2010.
Clearly majoring in the humanities has long been an anomaly for American undergraduates, even at Harvard, which means that the protestations we hear today that the humanities are the heart of the university or that our democracy needs the humanities are factually inaccurate. Still, it is surely fair for humanities faculty members to ask how they might attract more students.
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Bolder, however, than the rejection of departmental tunnel vision is the report’s call to revisit the canon. It’s not that the report tries to reopen the culture wars. Far from it: Harvard’s analysis does not mandate a great-books list, and it certainly does not eliminate room for revisionism and diversity.
Yet the report does suggest that the marginalization of the great works of the erstwhile canon has impoverished the humanities, making them less attractive to students. To correct that would involve “teaching only works whose transmission in our classrooms we consider vitally important.” That is a direct challenge to the canon critics, even if the report refrains from naming those important works.
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The most explosive element in the report’s diagnosis of the humanities’ malaise is embedded in its map of three competing interpretive traditions: philology, with its critical hermeneutics of suspicion, a philosophical aesthetics of appreciation, and a romanticism of identity and engagement. This masterful but highly stylized intellectual history demonstrates the diversity of the humanities—a big tent, so to speak—but it also allows the report to assert, with all due caution, that the disproportionate visibility of the critical and suspicious strand, with its exclusive focus on culture’s complicity in domination, has contributed to the decline in student interest.
The report struggles with this point but eventually makes its way through to an unexpected confession: “Those of us committed to criticism as critique might recognize a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy. Among the ways we sometimes alienate students from the humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in our classrooms.”
From "Humanist: Heal Thyself" by Stanford professor Russell A. Berman in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction. For more, click here.