Strategy for American Humanities: Blow Them Up and Start Again

By Miller, Toby | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, November 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Strategy for American Humanities: Blow Them Up and Start Again


Miller, Toby, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


A declining, out-of-touch discipline and its vocational counterpart must merge to offer a thriving third way, argues Toby Miller.

The humanities in the US are finished. They are unpopular with students, politicians and bureaucrats.

Students vote through enrolment. The humanities' share of majors stands at 8-12 per cent of the nation's undergraduates. That's less than half the figure in the 1960s and the lowest point since the Second World War, apart from Ronald Reagan's recession.

Between 1970-71 and 2003-04, English majors declined from 7.6 to 3.9 per cent of the national total, other languages and literatures dropped from 2.5 to 1.3 per cent, philosophy and religious studies fell from 0.9 to 0.7 per cent, and history decreased from 18.5 to 10.7 per cent. By contrast, business enrolment increased by 176 per cent and communication studies shot up 616 per cent.

The government's view? President Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union address called for increased expenditure on mathematics and science. It did not mention the humanities. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided not a cent for humanities research: science received $3 billion (Pounds 1.9 billion). The Republican Party has announced its desire to exterminate the National Endowment for the Humanities.

And administrators? They cut and cut.

Compared with other fields, the chances of tenure are poor: tenure-track hiring in language and literature occurs at two-thirds the national average. In 2009, just 53 per cent of humanities faculty were in full-time employment. An even smaller proportion had tenure.

Most people teaching the humanities work full-time in second-tier schools with gigantic course loads, often on limited-term contracts, or as "freeway professors", driving feverishly between jobs to cobble together a living.

And their worth is diminishing all the time. In 2003, health academics were paid on average $6,000 more than in 1987, during which time the humanities average declined by $1,000; in 2005-06, a business academic cost twice as much as a humanities one, compared with one and a half times as much 20 years earlier.

How did this happen? The turn away from the humanities is principally due to enrolment surges in public universities. The vast growth in higher education from the 1970s has taken place among the lower middle and working classes. They enrol in state institutions that are more vocational than private ones, with supply and demand far distant from narcissistic fantasies of small seminars and ethical self-styling.

Fifty years ago, the great political theorist Ralph Miliband, father of Labour's lugubrious twosome, addressed the state of the humanities in the US. He found a bizarre mix of "the hierarchical graces of Europe" and a "romantic vision of vanished America, rural, small-town, face-to-face" - something that never was versus something quickly lost. …

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