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From the Humanities to Humanism in an Era of Higher Education Reform?

Imagine yourself an early teacher of what comes to be known as the studia humanitatis, not one of the famous influential ones, but one of the humble teachers earning their keep offering preparatory skills, perhaps at the University of Paris or in one of its adjunct colleges, to students seeking admission to the higher faculties of law, medicine, or theology, or just to get on in life. This humanist was not concerned with imparting knowledge but was instead a purveyor of skills (or arts) inherited from the ancient liberal arts of grammar and rhetoric. The humanists, as the Renaissance scholar Paul Kristeller has written, believed studying the ancients mattered less for the wisdom they imparted than because ancient texts taught students “to write and speak well.”[1]

In our idealized vision of Renaissance humanists, we imagine them as seeking to re-create the virtues and knowledge of the ancients, and some of the most renowned did. But, as Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine remind us in their book From Humanism to the Humanities (1986), many Renaissance teachers who went by the name humanist promised students that their humanist arts had practical value to students seeking to enter universities or the bureaucracies of church and state. Indeed, Grafton and Jardine conclude that the primary goal of the studia humanitatis was not the formation of “original scholars and philosopher kings.” Instead, the promise of practical literary skills “to produce effective writers and active participants in civic life” would prove the foundation of “every flourishing school of the later sixteenth century, Protestant or Catholic.”[2]

By the eighteenth century, however, a new ideal was emerging, one defined by the philosophe rather than the humanist. Unlike the humanist, the philosophe sought knowledge as her or his end, what Bruce Kimball has called the “liberal-free ideal” because its advocates promised that knowledge would liberate people from the chains of ignorance.[3] Francis Bacon urged us to rid ourselves of false idols. And Kant answered the question, “what is Enlightenment?” with the answer that it is humanity’s release from its “self-imposed immaturity” (1784). Sapere Aude.

The shift from literary skills to philosophical knowledge took place first in royal scientific academies, in coffee houses, and in salons in civil society before it hit the universities. Most universities in England and British North America remained focused on educating the Christian gentleman through a curriculum that included the trivial skills (logic, grammar, and rhetoric) and the rational truths offered by the quadrivium. The arrival of the research university symbolized Enlightenment’s victory over the university, and philosophy’s victory over the traditional liberal arts.[4] The philosopher as truth seeker replaced the grammarian and rhetorician as master of skills. The liberal sciences—organized bodies of inquiry and knowledge—triumphed over the liberal arts. Indeed, for many researchers in the new universities, studying ancient languages mattered little in an institution in which the quest for knowledge predominated. Instead, the new social sciences offered more value than what would come to be called the humanities. The humanities, as Thorstein Veblen argued in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), were forms of conspicuous consumption. They were wasteful indulgences for the rich and useless.[5]

A similar transformation took place in high schools, which in the nineteenth century were thought of as “democracy’s college.”[6] Colonial boys intending higher study would have attended grammar schools to master ancient Greek and Latin to meet college admission requirements.[7] After the Revolution, first private academies and then, in the decades before the Civil War, public high schools offered curricula that went beyond the trivial arts to include the liberal sciences, or what we come to know as the core academic subjects. As public high schools expanded, they offered more and more Americans access to a liberal education grounded in the knowledge of biology, chemistry, history, literature, and mathematics. This knowledge was seen as liberating for individuals as well as essential for effective citizenship. As one 1848 writer put it, society was “ennobled by the possession, or by the influence of enlightened minds.” The modern public high school, unlike its predecessor the grammar school, was a home for philosophy.[8]

The rise of philosophy transformed what humanists considered their work. Humanists also became purveyors of the liberal sciences, not the liberal arts. They taught knowledge, not elementary skills. As doctors of philosophy, modern humanities professors are organized into scientific disciplines such as English and history. As James Turner argues, the modern humanities came into existence when philosophical or academic questions merged with philological techniques of textual and historical analysis to produce new disciplines.[9] That is how the technique of using history to study texts, for example, became the science of history today as embodied by the modern academic discipline.[10]

Most historians today are committed to the progressive development of knowledge in their discipline. They share with Daniel Coit Gilman, first president of the Johns Hopkins University, America’s first research university, the belief that universities exist to acquire, conserve, refine, and distribute knowledge. Knowledge is the end of the modern university, and its acquisition and distribution, through teaching and publication, is the end of the modern professor. Knowledge is always changing, justifying the need for expertise, and requiring the kind of training provided in modern graduate schools. Professors must advance knowledge in their own work, and remain “up to date” in their classrooms. College students should develop the ability to acquire and to use knowledge to interpret the world around them effectively and insightfully. Indeed, most historians today seek historical truth that will serve our students and our society.

Yet the coat did not always fit. Early philologists sought to edit and to master ancient texts which would serve as models of refinement. This aspiration—that words can improve the self—was reimagined in the nineteenth century, within the context of nation-states, as the humanities’ acculturating capacity. The emerging humanities would put students in touch with the living traditions of their nation, thus preparing them for active life. [11] As Princeton president Woodrow Wilson put it in his 1902 inaugural address, a response to the scientism of such educators as Gilman, universities had two tasks. Their first and primary task was “the production of a great body of informed and thoughtful men.” This depended on their secondary task: “the production of a small body of trained scholars and investigators.” Most undergraduates did not intend to become specialized researchers. Instead, a Princeton education should give undergraduates “elasticity of faculty and breadth of vision, so that they shall have a surplus of mind to expend, not upon their profession only…but also upon the broader interests which lie about them, in the spheres in which they are to be, not breadwinners merely, but citizens as well, and in their own hearts, where they are to grow to the stature of real nobility.”

The modern humanities professor—the modern historian—holds together, in a fragile isotope, the ancient liberal art of grammar, the modern ideal of scientific or philosophical investigation, and responsibility for culture. For most practicing humanities professors, these strands co-exist relatively harmoniously. Many of us draw from each liberally to define our purposes in the classroom, within the larger university, and before the public and policy makers. Moreover, there is a creative tension at the intersection of these three ideals. As Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues, the modern humanities “remain themselves unresolved, and thereby keep open the promise of a kind of knowledge that cannot be either divorced from nor reduced to information.” [12] Nonetheless, while most universities retain general writing and numeracy requirements, and continue to offer courses on communication and public speaking, universities are not organized by skills but by academic disciplines.

It is possible that the humanities held together in the twentieth century not because of their internal coherence but thanks to the external pressures imposed by the Cold War. The modern humanities, one of the many unstable isotopes of the nuclear age, was given expression in the Harvard Redbook and other documents of post–World War II America. To the authors of the influential Redbook, American students needed a general liberal education to prepare them for “life as a responsible human being and citizen” because democratic citizens needed to connect their specialized work to its larger social meaning and context. A general education would expose students, first, to various domains of knowledge, but these domains also cultivated specific abilities. While the natural sciences taught students to “describe, analyze, and explain,” the humanities taught them to “appraise, judge, and criticize.” A college student—as democratic citizen—also needed “to think effectively, to communicate thought, to make relevant judgments, to discriminate among values,” or, in other words, the skills and aptitudes that might have been cultivated through grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The result would be knowledgeable, thinking citizens capable of protecting democracy from communism.[13]

The Cold War university also, of course, prized research. The infusion of federal dollars, especially in the natural sciences, transformed universities’ activities. Although the humanities also benefited from the rising tide, they found themselves in what Michael Meranze has called a “structurally subordinate” position. Humanities professors benefited society, according to the logic of the Redbook and other early Cold War documents, through teaching, not research. The natural sciences, and even the social sciences, provided knowledge that answered practical problems vital for national security and public policy making. And, after the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act (1980), which made it easier for universities to profit from their research, to commerce too.[14] Yet what did the humanities add? We promised to teach students to think well and to write well and to have the values of democratic citizens. At the same time, we desired to do scientific research to advance knowledge in our new disciplines.

This was sustainable so long as the enemy the U.S. faced was political. We needed thoughtful, effective citizens to combat the menace of communism. Civic concerns had real purchase on policy makers because of the existential intellectual and military threat posed by the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War, this justifying framework came crashing down.[15] The new enemy is not political but economic. Globalization has created new threats to American prosperity. The new economy is high tech, demanding not well-rounded citizens, but highly-trained specialists. Slowly, the idea of the liberal arts and sciences broke apart. The natural sciences and mathematics were moved out of the realm of liberal education to join with engineering in a new isotope called “STEM” in order to prepare students for today’s high-demand jobs and to encourage research more aligned with market needs. The humanities could no longer benefit from their dalliance with the natural sciences. Scientists have moved on with their lives, but humanities professors have not yet gotten over the break up.

The post–Cold War university is no longer committed to the ends that had sustained the Cold War humanities. The reasons are of course multi-causal. Globalization transformed public discourse. The emergence of the mass university brought in many students whose aspirations were practical rather than liberal.[16] The culture wars left left-leaning humanities professors without conservative allies. Declining tax support shifted the costs of attendance to students, privatizing that portion of a university education that was supposed to be a public good, and forcing students to see their educations as financial investments.[17] Today, a true education in the arts and sciences is marketed as an elite good for students lucky enough to attend prestigious private schools or perhaps get into public universities’ honors colleges. [18] Other people need practical skills.

We see the same trends at the K-12 level. During the first Bush administration, advocates of national standards worried that poor and minority students were not gaining access to meaningful subject matter “because,” in the words of a Bush administration document, “the focus has been on basic skills.” Under the more recent Common Core, on the other hand, subject matter is deemed secondary to the skills required for “college and career readiness.” The importance of knowledge for personal growth or effective citizenship is relegated to the sidelines.[19] After all, as columnist Thomas Friedman has written, “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.”[20]

Humanities professors did not seek this new world order but, as we respond to it, we have turned back to the skills we impart. The liberal arts and the liberal sciences are coming apart absent the pressures of the Cold War to hold them together. In column after column, academic and business leaders defend the liberal arts for teaching transferable skills such as communication, creativity, and critical thinking. And no doubt they do. But if the knowledge we impart does not matter, neither do the disciplines we inhabit.

Today’s defenders of the humanities promise students, policy makers, and employers the skills employers want but say less about their subjects’ contribution to the education of a free person and effective citizen or the importance of basic research in the humanities. There is nothing wrong, of course, with arguing that a good education prepares one for work. There is ample evidence that the humanities lead to economic success. It is the definition of work that is also at stake. The humanities should, and do, prepare people to be insightful and productive contributors to our economic well-being. And contributing to the economy is part of our responsibility as members of society.[21] The challenge is when we treat generating human capital as the end of education, and conflate human capital with human subjectivity, as Wendy Brown cautions us in her book Undoing the Demos (2015).

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]How can we prevent the liberal arts from becoming the neoliberal arts?[/perfectpullquote]

Under a human capital regime, Brown writes, “knowledge, thought, and training are valued and desired almost exclusively for their contribution to capital enhancement…It is not sought for developing the capacities of citizens, sustaining culture, knowing the world, or envisioning and crafting different ways of life in common.” Instead education’s benefits must be measured—as President Obama’s College Scorecard makes clear—by its “return on investment.” Over time, Brown anticipates, “skills for twenty-first century jobs [will be] provided by an instructional staff itself organized around market metrics” making unnecessary “the patently anachronistic conceits and trappings of university life and content.”[22]

We must think hard about the implications of the arguments that we use to defend the humanities—including history—today. Skills are not just transferable, they are also devoted to ends. To what ends are we developing in students the skills of close textual analysis and writing? Why do we want our students to become critical thinkers? Do we connect the ends of these skills to higher purposes, or do we defend them in terms of their return on investment? Does critical thinking require the knowledge offered by the fast fraying disciplines that define(d) the humanities? How can we prevent the liberal arts from becoming the neoliberal arts?

And so we circle back. Imagine if you will, a humanist in 2017, peddling her or his wares on the edges of an American university, in an adjunct capacity, promising that the skills he or she can teach will pay off in the higher faculties of business, law, or medicine, or in the bureaucracies of state and corporation. This humanist promises that studying historical or literary texts matters less for the insights they offer, but because they can help students learn “to write and speak well.”

Johann N. Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University and a Senior Fellow of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is author of the essay “American History in a Global Age” (2011). His new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, will be published later this year by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

[1] Paul Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains (New York, 1961), 13. See also Olaf Pedersen, The First Universities: Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe (Cambridge, UK, 1997), 196-204;  Bruce A. Kimball, Orators & Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York, 1986), 82-87.

[2] Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), 197.

[3] Kimball, Orators & Philosophers, esp. chs.5-6.

[4] On the rise of American research university, see James Axtell, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (Princeton, 2016); Roger Geiger, The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II (Princeton, 2015); John R. Thelin, A History of American Higher Education (Baltimore, 2004).

[5] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York, 1899); Laurence Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago, 1965).

[6] Jürgen Herbst, The Once and Future School: 350 Years of American Secondary Education (New York, 1996).

[7] Robert Middlekauff, Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, 1963).

[8] I make this argument in Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (forthcoming: Baltimore, 2017), esp. chs. 1-2.

[9] James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton, 2014). See also Jaap Maat, “The Artes Sermocinales in Times of Adversity: How Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric Survived the Seventeenth Century,” in The Making of the Humanities, Volume I: Early Modern Europe, eds. Rens Bod, Jaap Maat, & Thijs Weststeijn (Amsterdam, 2010), 283-94.

[10] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity’ Question and the American Historical Profession (New York, 1988).

[11] In addition to Turner Philology see Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago, 1996), ch7; W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and the American Experience (Stanford, 1993).

[12] Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Humanities and the Dream of America (Chicago, 2011), 17.

[13] General Education in a Free Society: Report of the Harvard Committee (Cambridge, Mass., 1945), 51, 59, 64. See Christopher Loss, Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton, 2012).

[14] Michael Meranze,”Humanities out of Joint,” American Historical Review 120, 04 (Oct. 2015), 1311-26; Ellen Schrecker, The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (New York, 2010).

[15] Harpham, Humanities, ch6; Meranze, “Humanities,” 1322-1326.

[16] See, for example, Kevin Dougherty, “Mass Higher Education: What is its impetus? What is its impact?” Teachers College Record 99, 01 (Oct. 1997), 66-72; Victor E. Ferrall, Liberal Arts at the Brink (Cambridge, Mass., 2011), esp. ch3.

[17] Christopher Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore, 2016).

[18] Scott Cohen, “The Boutique Liberal Arts?” Liberal Education 100, 04 (Fall 2014), available at

[19] Neem, “The Common Core and Democratic Education” The Hedgehog Review 17, 02 (Summer 2015), available at

[20] Thomas L. Friedman, “How to Get a Job,” New York Times (May 28, 2013).

[21] On these points, see Russell Muirhead, Just Work (Cambridge, Mass. 2004).

[22] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York, 2015), 177-78, 181.