Paultine Yu
Paultine Yu

With the current state of the American job market, many college students are faced with a tough decision: whether they should study what they love, or pursue a discipline that is “safer bet” for one’s job prospects. This dilemma has led to an increased focus on the physical sciences and a cultural devaluation of the study of the humanities.

In popular discourse, it is often claimed that the humanities are losing their relevance and  their usefulness. It's a sentiment felt at many liberal arts schools, where increasing enrollment in departments like Economics are causing faculty cutbacks and restricted course offerings in the humanities departments.

Pauline Yu, the president of the American Council of Learned Societies, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a board member of the Academy’s national Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, delivered a talk on April 9 that speaks to the contrary. The event was sponsored by Hamilton’s Humanities Forum.

Although the story of the humanities is often framed critically — falling enrollments, reduced funding, increased tuition, diminished job prospects and a growing marginalization — Yu maintains that the humanities are actually characterized by “increased intellectual vitality, organizational energy, and social value.” Yu began by honoring alumnus Elihu Root, a member of the class of 1864 who served as chairman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and reshaped America’s higher education system.

Among students, popularity of the humanities has risen and fallen in accordance with U.S. politics. For example, during the Cold War, the nation was focused on rapidly developing its technologies, leading to an increase in the number of students studying the sciences. On the other hand, the counter-culture of the 1960s forced American youth to question their values and search for answers to life’s “big questions,” a trend that faded with the economic stagnation of the  70s and a decrease in educational funding, and that experienced a resurgence during the “Culture Wars” of the 80s when questions of inclusion and diversity become widespread.

Whether the trend increases or decreases depends on where it starts, Yu pointed out: “Most [graphs] begin in the 70s, when enrollment in the humanities was at its peak, instead of in the 50s or 60s when interest was burgeoning.” She went on to state that, “The percentage of humanities degrees has actually stayed the same, and enrollment has been constant over the past decade despite the economic crisis of 2008.” In fact, student enrollment in the humanities in 2010 was comparable to the 1970’s peak, and double majoring is on the rise.

Not only do the humanities demand “new and sustained attention to questions of social justice, underrepresented individuals and unstudied fields” but they are essential to our national well being. “Democracy demands wisdom of the average man, without which liberty and man are in peril, they make us wiser than we otherwise would be … by prompting continuous inquiry and research into how we know what we know, how we view the past, [and] how we create and preserve culture,” Yu noted.

Another major critique of the humanities is that humanities research is somehow less “reliable” than findings in the physical sciences. In reality, however, “[the humanities] have their foundation in research: procuring data, and organizing and analyzing it, before making generalizations,” Yu stated. Regarding the claim that academics in the humanities are too specialized, and thus no longer relevant, she maintains that, “one must start with specialization before one can build a generalization.”

Turning an eye toward the future, Yu mentioned four pillars of the humanities: public engagement, such as safeguarding the public sphere from any single force of study or ideology; collaborative practice, like tackling projects that span disciplines in order to counteract the “silo effect;” a global scope of expertise that fosters understanding and appreciation of foreign cultures; and the relentless inquiry into the question of value itself.

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