Study the Humanities: Help Us Make the Case

May 29, 2018

By Beatrice Gurwitz, Deputy Director, National Humanities Alliance

Think pieces abound on how best to make the case for the value of studying the humanities–should we as a humanities community emphasize the quite respectable career and salary outcomes of humanities majors or do we then fall into the trap of suggesting that higher education is necessary only for economic gain? Should we make claims that extend beyond the marketplace and emphasize preparation for citizenship and living the good life or do we then ignore the real economic concerns of first generation college students and many others? These are difficult questions, especially when the audience is theoretical.

At the National Humanities Alliance, we have the benefit of hearing about the concrete and creative approaches that faculty and administrators employ on their specific campuses. We learn about efforts to make the case to a variety of audiences, from high school students, to local employers, to upper level administrators. In these efforts, humanities faculty and administrators draw on broad arguments for the value of the humanities, and often data to support those arguments, but they also rely on sustained engagements with particular audiences. Through these engagements, they identify concerns and misperceptions about the humanities and respond to them in targeted ways. They are often successful in recruiting additional students to humanities courses and majors, but knowledge of their successes rarely extends beyond their campus.

This May, we are launching our Study the Humanities toolkit, designed to aid our college and university members in making the case for the humanities on campus. The first phase of Study the Humanities aggregates resources for higher education faculty and administrators to use in making the case for the value of studying the humanities as an undergraduate. The five main sections of the online toolkit are organized around overarching arguments for studying the humanities, and they provide the data—packaged into charts, data points, profiles, and articles—that can be used to bolster those arguments. These arguments cover the career-centered benefits of studying the humanities along with the benefits that extend beyond the marketplace.

This component of the toolkit is and will continue to be a work in progress: the website solicits feedback on the data we’ve used and any data that we have missed so that we can add and edit as new data emerges. In addition, we are hopeful that the presentation of the data in this fashion will help identify questions that still need answering through additional research. For example, the toolkit currently focuses on the outcomes of those who major in the humanities in large part because available quantitative data uses majors as the category of analysis. We are eager for the research on the value of taking humanities courses regardless of major.

We are also working towards phase two of the project: a clearinghouse of creative and concrete ways that faculty and administrators have engaged with different audiences to make the case for the value of studying the humanities. The clearinghouse is designed to share knowledge about successful strategies across the NHA community.

Humanities faculty and administrators will likely be interested to learn, for example, about Paula Krebs’ efforts when she was dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University. She worked with local employers to better understand what they looked for in entry-level employees. In doing so, she noticed that although employers were advertising for specific majors such as marketing or management, the skills they were describing as desirable were actually the skills taught in humanities majors. Once the employers learned more about the humanities, they changed their ads so they would welcome, rather than discourage, humanities majors.

Others will find the efforts at Case Western Reserve University–a university with a traditional focus on engineering and medicine–worth emulating. On that campus, Peter Knox, the director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, identifies students in the applicant pool who indicate an interest in studying the humanities and offers them a place in a cohort-based scholars program to cement their interest. The program introduces these young scholars to the best humanities resources on and around campus, with an emphasis on experiential and collaborative learning, providing firsthand interactions with and special access to galleries, collections, archives and events at Case Western Reserve University and partner institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Art. Additionally, it provides career workshops and facilitates paid internships with local cultural institutions and businesses. Perhaps most importantly, the program cultivates a community among the incoming students with an interest in the humanities. The program served 10 first year students in its first year, 30 in its second, and in the current year has achieved its target goal of 40.