Same Story, New Book: Repackaging Humanities at Harvard

Recently, national news outlets have declared a crisis of the humanities. But at Harvard, the plot gets more complicated. The challenges facing Harvard's humanities necessitate changes to course offerings far more than the core of the humanistic enterprise.

It’s 1 p.m., and students are streaming into Sanders Theatre, Harvard’s largest and most ornamented lecture hall. Computer Science 50 lecturer David J. Malan ’99 stands onstage, dressed, like many of his students, in a course-branded quarter-zipped hoodie. Dubstep blares from his laptop, his fingers zoom across the keyboard, and he takes one last sip of Sprite before striding to the center of the stage.

“Welcome back to CS50!” Malan calls out into his clip-on microphone. Video cameras across the room train their lenses on Malan, whose taped lecture will eventually be seen by nearly an eighth of the student body and thousands of edX students across the world.

Three hours earlier, English professor Philip J.  Fisher paces side to side at the front of his Sever lecture hall. “The Classic Phase of the Novel,” the English Department’s banner course, has yet to begin, and Fisher is scrawling something on the chalkboard, no computer or video cameras to be seen. Students are still wandering in when Fisher returns to his podium and begins to speak.

Tragedy is the topic of the day, but a different item tops Fisher’s agenda. He has not met enough students, he says, and so he will sit in on sections during the week to get to know them on a more personal level.

The differences between CS50 and “The Classic Phase of the Novel”—the size, the style, the aim—are emblematic of the national media debate about the decline of the humanities. While STEM —the trendy acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—departments have hierarchical learning structures that place every student in the same massive introductory classes, the humanities are characterized by smaller classes, a less sequential course progression, and enhanced professor-student interaction.

CS50 has been the face of the Computer Science Department’s rise, which has paralleled a broad decline in the number of humanities concentrators at the University. (Fifty-seven percent of incoming freshmen who say they want to study the humanities end up choosing other fields.) Overall, the number of humanities concentrators at Harvard has fallen 4 percentage points in the last decade, while STEM-field concentrators grew in number by 10 percentage points. Rates of decline in humanities majors at peer institutions such as Yale and Princeton were similar, although national rates stayed stable.

However, these statistics are inconclusive at best. Depending on the timeframe you use, the national change in degrees in the humanities can either look like a decline or a renaissance. According to data published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of humanities degrees today is higher than the mid 1980s but significantly lower than the peak in the 1960s. The reasons given for the recent decline at Harvard are unclear. While some argue the trend at Harvard is the result of an economic recession, others contend that the increase in science concentrators is largely due to erasure of stigmas attached to women in STEM disciplines.

The question at the heart of the debate has been whether the humanities are worth studying. But an examination of the humanities at Harvard suggests that the struggle has less to do with subject matter and much more to do with rethinking pedagogy, enhancing accessibility, and promoting innovative means of processing information.


If you had scanned the website of any major American news outlet this past summer, you would have likely come across some mention of the crisis in college-level humanities. According to New York Times opinion writer Stanley E. Fish, the humanities crisis is the fault of the elitist academy. The Atlantic suggests that the humanities crisis actually happened in 1985. A July news article in Inside Higher Ed, on the other hand, presents data that the humanities crisis is attributable to the movement of women into the sciences. There is no crisis in the humanities, Nate Silver argued.

Part of what sparked this most recent media maelstrom was a report that Harvard’s Arts and Humanities Division published in June, the culmination of an 18-month-long investigation into the status of the humanities at Harvard. The report reflected growing concerns that both the University and society were leaving the humanities behind and proposed potential solutions.

There are two prongs to the decline of Harvard student interest in the humanities: the falling number of students who plan to major in the humanities, and the ensuing decline of students who actually do.

According to the June report, the number of incoming freshmen intending to major in the humanities fell 9 percentage points at Harvard over the last decade. (Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal did not respond to requests for comment on the role the Admissions Office plays in the declining number of incoming students who want to pursue humanities.)

The students who still plan to study the humanities do so primarily out of intellectual curiosity, found a survey of incoming Harvard freshmen cited in the June report. But 57 percent of these humanities-inclined students end up in another field, almost all of them in a social science concentration.

One of these students who changed her mind is Lily R. Glimcher ’14, a psychology concentrator who intended to study history of art and architecture, English, or a special concentration in dramatic arts. She says that she switched because she found that psychology fit her personality.

“Everything I wanted to do as a person really fit into psychology,” Glimcher says. “I found that it’s this great intersection between the humanities and the sciences. And depending on the classes you take, you can really explore both of those two things.”

Ned L. Whitman ’15, a history and science concentrator with a secondary in visual and environmental studies, came to Harvard to study VES and neurobiology. However, he discovered the social sciences felt like a good fit.

“It was a choice that brought in my outlook on life in general and my education, but I didn’t see it as closing any doors either,” he says. “Because I knew if I wanted to go into the sciences, that option for graduate school would be available, or vice versa, if I wanted to go into the arts or business.”

But the anecdotes can only explain so much, and faculty are still confused as to why more than half of students interested in the humanities declare a concentration in the social sciences. One common hypothesis is that the changing socioeconomic climate of the College has resulted in more admitted students who are wary of the humanities.

“The demographics of Harvard have changed, so with this very exciting financial aid initiative, there are more students here who are traveling with expectations of their families and others,” says Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67. “They may be the people who are going to break from a cycle of modest income.”

However, citing the report published in June which he co-chaired, English professor W. James Simpson says financial pressures do not factor into students’ choices of concentration.

The debate over the financial viability of a humanities degree comes at a time of economic uncertainty, when Harvard students feel increasingly pressured to plan early for their lives after college. For a field that has always focused on degrees that are lucrative intellectually, rather than financially, the humanities now find that economic concerns have bled into substantive ones. Without providing financial security, students wonder, are the humanities worth it?


The question is hard to answer on a University-wide level, but anecdotally, many humanists maintain that their fields lead to a variety of career options.

Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen says her division’s alumni are often “venture capitalists with concentrations in the classics, or architects with concentrations in, say, music or English.” When it comes to future employers, Sorensen says, “They’re not looking for a person who’s going to know every little detail of their first job. They want a Harvard student.”

K. Lanier Walker ’14—an English concentrator with a history of art and architecture secondary who plans to be a museum curator—agrees. “Maybe I can’t build a car, but I can analyze things, I know how to make arguments, I know how to write,” she says. “I believe you can learn job skills on the job.”

Aurora C. Griffin ’14 succinctly sums up the effects of a humanities concentration on her job prospects: “I’m studying classics; I’m going to work for McKinsey next year.”

Another way to measure the worth of a humanities degree is to examine the undergraduate experience itself—and humanities concentrators are happy, surveys say. Humanities students report appreciation for the small size of their concentrations. The smallest Harvard concentrations consistently score the highest in senior satisfaction ratings, and for the class of 2012, humanities concentrations had the highest scores overall.

A seminar teaching style, with the close connection to professors it offers, is one of the humanities’ biggest draws. “When you’re taking a science class, unless you go to your TF’s office hours, you’re not going to interact directly with anyone from the teaching staff,” says Lea Corban ’14, a romance languages and literatures concentrator who initially planned to study engineering. “Whereas in the humanities, your professor emails you first.”

Concentrator satisfaction and anecdotal evidence of postgraduate career options, however, do not address the degree to which humanistic thinking matters in a world ruled by algorithms.

Slavic languages and literatures professor Julie A. Buckler laments, “There may be a general perception that the humanities matter less—that they’re decorative rather than fundamental.”

Roxanna Haghighat ’15, a premed neurobiology concentrator with a secondary in VES, remembers attending back-to-back film theory and global health sections last year. “I’d go from talking about the implications of architecture in one of these shots and how this was the most important thing, and then going to a discussion of how millions of people are dying,” she says.

Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker thinks the utility of the humanities is more nuanced.  While he admires aspects of the field, he has emerged as a vocal critic of the insular nature of humanities in contmporary academia. As he wrote in “Science is Not Your Enemy” in The New Republic this summer, Pinker believes the humanities would be both intellectually enhanced and practically benefited by incorporating scientific ideas. In an interview with The Crimson, Pinker added that in the humanities, “any attempt to say that the sciences are relevant or integrated or simply continuous is seen as a threat.”

Other scholars disagree that fields like cognitive science will greatly improve humanistic thought. “The neurosciences are nowhere near understanding consciousness. It’s like 11-year-old boys geeking out on their robots; it’s nothing more than that,” says Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, who co-wrote a New York Times opinion piece two weeks ago arguing that humanistic thinking directly enhances scientific pursuit of truth. “By doing fMRIs, by finding out that part of the brain turns green when you read Shakespeare, what do you learn about Shakespeare? Nothing.”


Such interdisciplinary barriers are only part of the structural problems for the humanities. Humanities departments lack the rigid structure of the natural or social sciences, and humanities concentrators note that they were immediately able to take high-level seminars as freshmen or sophomores. However, the fluidity of the departments has a negative flip side—prospective concentrators are often not sure where to begin.

In 2007, concerns about the accessibility of humanities material, especially to prospective freshman concentrators, prompted English professor Stephen J. Greenblatt, along with fellow English professor Louis Menand, to offer English 110: “A Humanities Colloquium,” a department-specific introduction to the “remarkable works of art in our literary tradition,” as Greenblatt describes it.

“When a student comes to Harvard and looks at the catalog, they look at LS1a and Ec10 and know that they can take those courses,” Menand says. “They don’t see anything in the humanities that they think they can take, and they might avoid taking classes in the humanities because they don’t see a class freshmen can expect to do well in.”

Menand says that English 110, which is currently capped at 36 students and offered every other year, was never intended to match the size of the large introductory science courses. It was designed to introduce students to the humanities and generate excitement about the discipline.

“We began by sitting around and just asking ourselves what it is that we thought that students should have read before they graduated,” Greenblatt says. “I don’t mean only students who are majoring in and studying humanities, but as part of virtually anyone’s education, what you should read.”

Previous attempts at introductory humanities classes, like English 110, have increased departmental accessibility, but there isn’t a clear analog in the humanities for sweeping introductory courses such as Ec10, CS50, or Stat104.

“What you can’t do is have [an] ‘Intro to Humanities’ [course] that covers all times, all cultures, men and women. It’s just not feasible. You’re going to have to make some choices,” philosophy professor Alison J. Simmons says.

Despite this, humanities faculty have attempted to tackle the accessibility problem by offering three new courses this academic year: “The Art of Looking,” “The Art of Listening,” and “The Art of Reading.”

Called “framework” courses and listed under the humanities heading in the course catalog, the three classes serve to “introduce students to humanistic thinking without indoctrinating them, if you will, in any particular disciplinary formation or set of assumptions,” says history of art and architecture professor Robin E. Kelsey, who co-teaches “The Art of Looking.”

Most weeks, students in “The Art of Looking” attend lecture, a looking session, and a lab session.  One week’s lab was called “Graph Court,” Kelsey says. It “entailed students receiving a set of facts, and [as] a part of an imaginary law firm, they come up with visual displays using graphs that would make a compelling case for their side in a fictional lawsuit.”

Kelsey thinks his course differs from other kinds of intro-level courses by making tangible connections to the world outside the University. For instance, Kelsey says, “I do think people across a great many fields have to deal with graphs, whether they’re in medicine or they’re in law or in one of the social sciences or the natural sciences—graphs are ubiquitous.”

Another potential solution to accessibility concerns in the classroom comes from an unusual source—the so-called digital humanities.

Romance languages and literatures professor Jeffrey T. Schnapp is one of the many faces of this new movement. The former Stanford professor is the founder of metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research group whose mission is, according to its website, to “[chart] innovative scenarios for the future of knowledge creation and dissemination.”

MetaLAB, Schnapp says, focuses on creating new frontiers of presenting information—creating a kind of inclusivity the humanities have not always had. One of the lab’s first projects, Curarium, was the creation of a digital “collection of collections” where students can explore museum art from the comfort of their dorm room.

Similar initial projects have focused on visualization tools for public library data, leveraging the unique library and museum collections of Harvard to create digital databases that allow students to use the tools of the future to connect with the keys of the past.

“Pretty much everything we do has a strong connection to teaching,” Schnapp says. “Teaching not just connected to a class but the idea of learning through making and doing—what is called a student-centered learning model—is really central to the lab.”

As Schnapp points out, the humanities have long been as much about the sharing and critique of ideas as they have been about the texts and art that prompt the discussion. MetaLAB is a reflection of the digital humanities movement: an attempt to combine the traditional tools of computer scientists with the motivations of the humanities, to make information universally accessible without sacrificing the personal nature of the subject.


When Alice A. Kenney ’14 was deciding whether to study comparative literature, though, accessibility wasn’t her primary obstacle.

“I was afraid I was being selfish,” Kenney says. “I was afraid that instead of learning about all the horrible problems caused by all the thousands of issues going on in the world, I was just studying beauty.”

Kenney thinks that many Harvard students feel burdened by the need to use their education to make a difference in the world.  Students worry, she says, “if they don’t study specific diseases going on, or specific issues, that they’re just learning for themselves and not anybody else.”

Kenney began her college career hoping to study social studies or anthropology, to learn about big-picture issues like race relations and inequality and, after college, to enact social change on the ground. As Kenney took more literature courses, however, she realized that the most helpful skill set for her future plans came from reading novels, not social theory.

“There was an article in the Science Times about how reading literature makes you more empathetic and in my experience, that’s really true,” Kenney says. “In some ways literature, and I’m sure other humanities, are about understanding other people’s minds and how other people think and how other people see the world.”

“In social sciences, we learn a lot about the big picture issues—about this percentage of people who have HIV or this percentage of people who are homeless,” Kenney continues. However, “it’s really important to remember the individual and the experience of that homeless person,” she says. “That kind of perspective, of empathizing with that individual, is a tool we learn in many places, but one of the places we learn that is in literature and in the experience of reading.”

Kenney’s opinion is shared by many who consider themselves proponents of the humanities. As Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies for History Heidi J.S. Tworek argues, the humanities are much more about teaching skills for life than focusing on the immediate future.

“Humanities are not about training you for the first job out of college, they’re about training you to gain the kind of skills that you use for the rest of your life,” Tworek says. “To be able to understand change, to be able to be empathetic—[those are] some things that are incredibly important in today’s globalized, networked world, where we continue to be confronted with very different cultures and very different ways of thinking.”

Simmons, the philosophy professor, has a response for students who deride the humanities for their lack of tangible impact: “Come back and talk to me when you’re 40,” she says. “I know so many people who have gone into law or business or finance, and they wake up in their 40s and they think, ‘What’s my life about?’”

The ability to understand these larger life questions is a key societal issue, says Sorensen, the Dean of Arts and Humanities.

Buckler, the Slavic languages and literatures professor, says it is “shocking” that the humanities should have to dignify their importance on a national stage. Yet she agrees with Sorensen, who says that the perception of crisis is an opportunity to remind the world of the importance of the humanities.

“Like the world out there, the humanistic and artistic life need to be once again put on the front burner,” Sorensen says. “Honestly, a lot of the problems we see in many spheres of contemporary life come from a loss of that perspective, which has to do with values, with meaning, with understanding and how you reach understanding, and also with how you debate differences of opinion.”

“As we’ve seen in our recent government misadventures, we don’t seem to have the tools for debate,” she adds.

Stanley, the Yale philosophy professor, concurs with Sorensen, suggesting that perhaps it isn’t such a big deal that the value of the humanities is being publicly debated. “The humanities are supposed to be in crisis,” he says. For a discipline with a lasting legacy—and which, he says, will not be replaced for thousands of years at least—discussion about the future is extremely valuable.

Stanley argues that no matter what accessibility and structural issues the humanities may have, they are a resilient and integral part of society.

On the whole, Harvard humanities professors agree with Stanley. But for now, they believe that their task is to bring the humanities to all Harvard undergraduates’ lives and to recruit more students with a passion for humanistic thinking.

“My lens for interpreting things that happen in my life, or things that happens in the news, or things that other friends experience, really is literature. I think through characters and things I’ve seen in art and things I’ve encountered in poetry,” Kenney says. “It felt appropriate in college to study my way of experiencing the world.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: Nov. 13, 2013

An earlier version of this article stated that over the past decade, the number of incoming Harvard freshmen intending to major in the humanities fell by 9 percent, the number of Harvard humanities concentrators fell by 4 percent, and the number of STEM-field concentrators increased by 10 percent. To clarify, all of these figures refer to change in percentage points, not percentage rate change.