THE VALUE OF THE HUMANITIES. Nathan Heller is a staff writer at The New Yorker, an American weekly magazine featuring journalism, commentary, criticism, essays, fiction, satire, cartoons, and poetry, in which he often writes about technology, higher education, and contemporary socioeconomics.  In his recent New Yorker article The End of the English Major he examined how enrollment in the humanities, which entail the study of the human world and society from a critical perspective and include majors like English, history, and philosophy, is in free fall at universities around the United States.

Nathan Heller, how did you arrive at a project to examine why the humanities are being neglected in the university world today?

A great number of writers at The New Yorker also teach, and those who teach in the humanities were reporting seeing fewer and fewer people in the classroom. This was a mystery. When I began to look at numbers from across the country, I saw a pronounced and alarming trend. Fewer and fewer people were majoring, as we say in the U.S., in the humanities—they were not following the humanities as a course. This was the case at many of the very large and the very prestigious universities, and it was also true at many of the smaller and the open-access universities. And it was true at many of the liberal arts schools that traditionally have been humanities strongholds. Such a widespread trend in higher education is unusual and strange.

How massive has the decline in the study of humanities been in the last ten years?

I provided measures in the article, but overall, in the U.S., the number of English and history majors fell by one-third over just one decade, with a 17% decline in the humanities generally. Some universities were seeing as much as a 75% drop. The trend is mirrored internationally. I spent time at a few universities and spoke with people at many more. I talked with professors and leaders, but also with students, because I wanted to try to understand why they decided to study what they did. I spoke at length with around a hundred people all told, and I found a range of things. One had to do with universities directing much of their new funding into the sciences and engineering. Students notice. They are left with the impression that these are exciting growth fields. That emphasis can be very lucrative for the university, because it attracts outside funding.

“I saw a pronounced and alarming trend.”

Nathan Heller

Harvard Yard, Autumn 2022

Nathan Heller, do the students take science or engineering or technology, and not humanities, due to what they perceive a university course should give them?

Many of the students who are coming in are feeling more and more under economic pressure when they graduate and take their degrees. There is a sense that when they are 22 or 23 years old they need to be earning a lot of money and to be very successful in that way—earlier than in the past. This has had an influence on what they study. One of the premises of an education in the humanities is that it offers value realised over many years. It’s an education that often bears fruit in the long term, whereas other courses are directed toward a particular job when you are very young—there is a clear pathway. In society as well as in the university, there is less and less patience with the longer term value of a humanities education.

Is there a perception that humanities have less value in the world of today? 

It’s a serious issue. If you were to ask many young people where the most exciting work of the moment is being accomplished, many of them would say it’s happening in technology. I don’t think that’s actually true, but there is a perception issue. As we move in the direction of more and more automation, and more being done by A.I., the value of what is human, if anything, increases, because it’s rarer and rarer. In the long run, the work which is being done in the humanities, and the habits of mind which are available there, should not lose value.

Do people simply feel they don’t have the time to read classic works such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the works of Shakespeare or Dante’s Divine Comedy or Joyce’s Ulysses? 

I worry that’s the perception. Ulysses is a long and a complicated book, and it requires much of the reader. At a moment when many people are said to have have shorter attention spans, it becomes unusual to set aside a good amount of time to actually enjoy these books. It goes without saying that if one does put in the time, their rewards are tremendous—if anything, greater now than they’ve ever been, because that sort of reward is harder to come by in life.

“If you were a student of computer science 20 years ago, that does not necessarily qualify you to be a good, wise and responsible leader.”

Nathan Heller, you mention in your article a donation of $1,000,000,000 to build an engineering school at Harvard, but very little money is going to the humanities. Having less money, is there also a lower quality of humanities professors and visiting professors at the universities?

Teaching is an aspect of what we’re discussing, and there have been, in the U.S., very significant changes over the past years which have been detrimental to the academic profession. Part of it does have to do with funding. There are fewer and fewer academic jobs which are on the tenure track, and so many of the younger doctoral students are not able to get a job. The risk is that there will be fewer wonderful people who want to go into the field. In the long term, this has an effect on the quality and the vigor of teaching in the universities. That, in turn, has an effect on whether departments in the humanities are able to draw in the best students. It’s a very real phenomenon, and a menace. The academic job market is a complicated problem that over the past many years has been the subject of a lot of discussion—but it remains a problem.

There is a lot of concern about artificial intelligence becoming so powerful and dangerous and what the human brain is going to do. Should the whole system be reshuffled and rebalanced, so that a student of literature knows the rudiments of technology or a technological person knows Shakespeare or Plato or T.S. Eliot?  

It’s a very serious issue. As I mentioned a bit earlier, as the role of technology becomes more and more an aspect of our daily lives, the value of what is human becomes more and more precious. Part of the work of the humanities as a field is to deal in a rigorous and systemic way with the question of the human element in the world. The value of that work is going to increase over the years ahead, and it should, because otherwise there will be an eclipse of what is human by what is not. Usually the human is much more complicated than the nonhuman, and it’s important that we continue to have a language to talk about that. At the moment, the sciences are not at risk of going into academic eclipse, but a rounded education is always a good thing.

Nevertheless, maybe the humanities are just a luxury nowadays and even the university itself is obsolete after its thousand years of history. Is it still useful?

The value of the university today is tremendous, in part because we live at a moment when a lot of information is moving very quickly all across the world. There is an opportunity for the movement of bad information and for information that is not as rigorous and as well thought out as it ought to be. The role of the universities in training habits of mind to the highest standard is considerable. There is currently a perception of the humanities as a luxurious add-on to work done in other departments, but it’s a very wrong perception. If you are the CEO of a large technology company and your job is very complicated, you have to strategize on the road ahead in a smart and humane way. You have to be good at managing people whom you work with. You have to be able to communicate in a clear way, to take big ideas and work with them responsibly, and to translate them into particular action. All of this is the work of the humanities. It’s the human work. If you were a student of computer science 20 years ago, that does not necessarily qualify you to be a good, wise and responsible leader. In that respect, a humanities education is not at all a luxury. It’s a necessity. It is a vital thing to be engaged with literature and other traces of the human past, and to try to understand the ways in which all of this is re-imagined in the work of the present.

Nathan Heller

Arizona State University 2022

Nathan Heller

Arizona State University 2022

Nathan Heller

Arizona State University 2022

Nathan Heller

Arizona State University 2022

Nathan Heller

Harvard University 2022

Nathan Heller

Harvard Univeristy 2022

“The humanities’ value exists on its own terms.”

Nathan Heller, is this decline in the study of the humanities that you have observed simply a marketing problem? 

One of the universities I looked at in a close way is Arizona State University. The Dean of the humanities at that university hired a marketing company to market all of the departments in a more aggressive way, and the results have been pretty strong. There are more students who are majoring in the humanities at that school over the past two years, although it’s a marginal increase. There is a question in my mind, and in the minds of many of the scholars of the humanities I spoke with about this, whether, if there is an emphasis on the utility of the humanities in this way – in other words, if it becomes a kind of pre-professional training – whether in the long run there’s a loss of an understanding of the particular value of the humanities. The reason why we learn how to read a T.S. Eliot or a Proust or a Toni Morrison is not to get a job. That’s not the nature of the value of that work. There’s a risk that if everything is marketed as an entity in the professional and global markets, it becomes a betrayal – an effacement – of what actually makes the work of the humanities distinctive and valuable. This could lead, again in the long run, to a further erasure of the understanding of the value of the humanities. That spiral is a very real risk, which is why I’m wary of the marketing efforts in a systemic way.

We live in a highly transitional technological period and the internet and TV series are the major new communication media. Is it perhaps just the case that nowadays the media used to convey to a large audience what was once exclusively in the domain of an elite is different?  

That media are always changing. The novel, at this point, is not able to command many of the audiences that it had in the days of Dickens or Tolstoy; but it’s also true that before that, for instance in the 17th century in London, there was a very dynamic theatre culture. All of these forms have a moment of popularity in the real sense of the word. Because of that, I would disagree that the work of the humanities, broadly defined, has always been in the realm of the elites. Dickens and Shakespeare were able to enjoy broad success in their days and reach an audience which was general. I don’t think that there is anything definingly elite about the work of the humanities. It is often true that within the work at the university the scholarship of the humanities – particularly over recent years – has become quite professionalised, but that is also a particular circumstance, not a continuous one, and doesn’t have to be part of the humanities. There’s nothing structurally preventing the humanities from moving into the realm of popularity in the way that much of technology has at the moment. In large part it has to do with education – the way the humanities are valued within schools – and their perceived value in culture.

How are we to give new life and attractiveness to the humanities?

It is a question of the understanding of the value of this education, and by value I mean the value particular to the humanities – not value in the market sense or on the terms of other fields. The humanities’ value exists on its own terms. It often emerges all too plainly when we have a crisis like war or plague and have to look back on the human past and try to understand what is going on in the light of what came before. There isn’t anywhere outside the humanities where that work is able to take place and where that mode of understanding is able to be completely realised. I think the teaching of the humanities is more important at this particular moment than it has been in a very long time. The more that we can have that value recognised, the better. It is vitally important.

Thank you very much for saying so.

Portrait of Nathan Heller by Elena Graham. All images courtesy of Nathan Heller.