IT IS VERY GOOD NEWS THAT the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) has received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its Humanities Indicators project. Without baseline information about the state of the humanities and systematic tracking of changes over time, no informed planning is possible by liberal arts institutions and others concerned about the health of these fields. At the same time, the foundation's generous grant does not ensure the collection and publication of reliable data over time. Now is the time to address the long-term future of data collection about the humanities.
The humanities play an especially large role in the preparation of well-informed citizens in a democracy: Low voter-participation rates and unfamiliarity with pressing current issues are the results of failings in schools and colleges to promote foreign language learning, familiarity with major texts of the American political tradition, and knowledge of American and world history. Quantitative measures of the state of the humanities are especially useful for college and university leaders who may be tempted in curricular and budget planning to give these fields short shrift. The humanities may not always be popular among students, but they are the heart of a liberal arts education.
The federal government should take responsibility for tracking the Humanities Indicators, just as for many years the National Science Foundation has been required by Congress to report on the state of the sciences. Despite political shifts in the White House and Congress and despite ups and downs in federal appropriations, NSF has produced Science Indicators regularly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does something similar for employment, and the Education Department does it for school enrollment. Even libertarians who are skeptical about any expansive federal role concede that collecting basic data is an appropriate government role. As a matter of sound public policy, this responsibility should not be permanently in private hands, despite Mellon's recent largesse.
A LOOK BACK
There is a history to the AAAS project (in which I played a small part) that may offer lessons for the future. …