September 24, 2018

By Daniel Fisher, Project Director, National Humanities Alliance

As campuses across the country fill with the renewed energy of the fall semester, it is a good time to pause to reflect on how we make the case for the value of the humanities at institutions of higher education. The question is particularly pressing in light of newly-released data from the Pew Research Center that shows that roughly six-in-ten Americans (61 percent) believe U.S. higher education is “headed in the wrong direction.” Among a range of concerns, 73 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats believe that students are not being prepared to succeed in the workplace.

While the Pew survey was not focused on the humanities specifically, its results highlight the challenges that advocates for the humanities in higher education face today. To combat concerns about preparation for the workforce, we can and should show that studying the humanities cultivates critical skills that have led to success in a wide range of career paths—with strong earnings and high levels of job satisfaction. It is also important to show that the benefits of studying the humanities extend beyond the market—facilitating engaged citizenship and a life well-lived.

At the same time, the Pew survey results point to a more general need to reframe the conversation about the value and direction of higher education: to make the claim that higher education institutions serve not just individual students but also, and increasingly, their surrounding communities. Case-making for the humanities should include rich examples of how publicly-oriented humanities projects enrich life in the U.S.: building and strengthening communities; creating innovative and practical learning experiences for students and people of all ages and backgrounds; and broadening our understanding of ourselves, our nation, and our world.

To highlight the public impact of the humanities in higher education, the National Humanities Alliance recently launched Humanities for All: a website that documents the past 10 years of publicly engaged humanities research, teaching, and programming in universities and colleges across the U.S. The website presents a cross section of over 1,400 projects, searchable, sortable, and illustrated with 51 in-depth profiles. When viewed together, these initiatives illustrate the broad impact of the humanities beyond higher education.

Humanities for All not only seeks to broaden narratives about the humanities in higher education but also to deepen the practice of public engagement in the humanities. We at NHA have a stake in encouraging more of this work, which provides more opportunities for members of the public to have humanities experiences and appreciate the significance of the humanities in higher education. In addition, when integrated into coursework, engaged humanities projects can provide meaningful and practical learning experiences that prepare students for the workforce. To this end, we present these examples as a resource for all who would like to begin or deepen their practice of public engagement.

Examples of engagement abound in U.S. history, all of which can inform our humanities case-making and practice.

In Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Gregory Rosenthal of Roanoke College is helping to lead a grassroots community-based public history initiative to tell the stories of Roanoke’s LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations. The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project is organized through democratic monthly community meetings at the Roanoke Public Library. Rosenthal and the group’s other leaders have organized a range of initiatives, including the creation of a digital and physical archive, the collection of oral histories, monthly walking tours, and public programs including recreations of LGBTQ+ social events from Roanoke’s past. Through these initiatives, the project seeks to preserve history and facilitate conversation across generations in the LGBTQ+ community, Rosenthal explains: “We find that bringing people together to talk about history is a powerful way to break the ice and get those generations talking.”

The Clio website and app also illustrate the potential impact of the publicly engaged humanities. Clio features short entries on sites of local, national, and global significance around the U.S., offering a powerful, accessible, and fun platform for sharing local knowledge about historic and cultural sites. Created by David Trowbridge of Marshall University, Clio is driven by a nationwide network of contributors from communities and institutions, including museums, historical societies, and libraries. Clio is specially calibrated for use in higher education, with built-in systems that make the assignment of Clio profiles as class projects both easy and impactful.

We encourage you to visit Humanities for All to explore engaged humanities projects like these. More broadly, we would appreciate your consideration: How can Humanities for All inform your humanities case-making and practice?