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Revitalizing the Humanities at Harvard

Practical concerns and a global paradigm shift away from humanistic study have left dwindling enrollment and the need for reflection and repackaging

Humanistic fields of study at Harvard and around the globe have experienced deteriorating enrollment due to changing attitudes toward the practicality of the humanities in modern society.
Humanistic fields of study at Harvard and around the globe have experienced deteriorating enrollment due to changing attitudes toward the practicality of the humanities in modern society.
By Brianna D. MacGregor, Crimson Staff Writer

When students in Ursula Lindqvist’s first-year Swedish class introduced themselves by name and concentration to classroom guests last semester, she was shocked to hear what many of her students were studying.

“I was really surprised to hear student after student after student say ‘Economics,’” said Lindqvist, who will leave her position as Director of Undergraduate Studies for Scandinavian to teach at a small liberal arts college next fall. “I’ve been reading the journals that they’ve been writing...and it was really startling to realize that so many of them are leaning toward Econ. And there’s nothing wrong with Econ, but let’s face it—it’s the huge fall-back concentration, it’s the safe one.”

Lindqvist acknowledged that many students are genuinely interested in economics. But she also raised a concern expressed by students and faculty members alike: as uncertainty persists in the job market, undergraduates seem to feel pressure to choose “practical” fields of study that are thought to increase employment opportunities after college.

But future “success” may not correlate with present happiness. Senior exit surveys over the last three years have consistently shown that humanities concentrations have the highest satisfaction levels when compared to the natural sciences, social sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

As enrollment in the humanities has fallen, from 321 senior concentrators in 2010 to 284 in 2012, faculty and students are looking to counter what has proven to be a global shift away from the humanities.


In late April of this year, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha declared a global “crisis” for the study of humanities. Speaking at “The Humanities and the Future of the University,” a panel convened to discuss the uncertain future of humanistic scholarship, Bhabha highlighted a telling statistic: the amount of money dedicated to humanities research totaled less than half of one percent of the amount dedicated to science and engineering research and development in 2011.

According to national data that chair of the English department W. James Simpson said will be compiled into a report on the humanities to be published this month, the number of bachelor degrees earned in the humanities has declined from 14 to eight percent between 1966 and 2010.

As society increases focus on science and technology, many arts and humanities affiliates frame these statistics within a broader paradigm shift.

Diana Sorensen, divisional dean of the arts and humanities at Harvard, acknowledged that the rise of science has promised societal improvements but added that abandoning the humanities could be dangerous.

“As fast as that pace [of scientific research] has been, we feel that it hasn’t taken stock of the depth of humanistic reflection that would really inform that pace,” she said. “If you’re just hurtling yourself toward the future, you’re more likely to repeat mistakes.”


Harvard is not immune to the global trend, but professors are rethinking its causes.

“Up to about a year ago, there were three major reasons for declining concentrator numbers in the humanities. They were: admissions were geared toward scientists, that [the problem] is Harvard-specific, and that it’s to do with financial aid,” said Simpson. “We now know, a year on, that not one of those arguments withstands scrutiny.”

According to Simpson, students pick their concentrations based on intellectual curiosity and a desire to contribute positively to society—goals that students seem to think non-humanities concentrations will fulfill more effectively.

That perception, many suggest, may be driven not by a lack of interest in humanities but rather post-graduate employment pressures. Eighteen percent of students entering Harvard indicate an intention to study the humanities, Simpson said, but more than half of those end up in the social sciences instead.

“A lot of the kids I’ve taken Ec with do it because they like it, but I also think there are some people who think that, because they do Ec at Harvard, they’ll have a better chance of getting a job,” said Jimmy C. Field ’14, an economics concentrator who chose his plan of study based on his interest in math and finance.

Celena C. Tyler ’14, now a literature concentrator, originally wanted to pursue economics. “That’s just what everyone kind of did,” she said. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted, and everyone said, ‘Oh, you’ll be successful if you do this.’”

Though some students feel that the University provides equal support to all fields of study, others think a disparity in the resources and funding allotted to divisions further embodies the shift away from the humanities.

“The dearth of research opportunities advertised for the humanities is shameful,” wrote Katya Johns ’14-’15, a dual concentrator in English and government and a Crimson arts editor, in an email. “It is up to the individual humanities student to find a mentor to shadow. There are very few pretexts under which to pursue your own individual passions and projects.”

Faculty echoed the call for Harvard to reinvest in the humanities.

“I think of President Faust as a humanist herself,” said Sorensen. “But I do think, on the other hand, that there has been a shift in interest, both here and in society at large.”


When Lindqvist started teaching first-year Swedish in the fall of 2009, three students enrolled in the class. After the department increased its web presence, started an email list, and created interdisciplinary courses, 22 students enrolled in the same course last fall.

“As soon as we started reaching out, there was a ready audience there, said Lindqvist. “There was a pre-existing interest. As soon as they found out we had something, they started coming.”

Simpson agreed that the humanities have the right message but should think carefully about whether it is accessible to the modern student.

“Maybe the social sciences are offering answers to the questions that students really want answered about their world,” he said. “[The humanities] needn’t take back on any of our commitments to disciplinary rigor, but we might want to think about designing courses, giving titles, packaging our material, in ways that are the world.

The arts and humanities division is creating new courses that focus on both interdisciplinary interactions and big questions about violence, war, and the meaning of life, according to Sorensen. Additionally, the division hopes to create a collaborative space, perhaps modeled in part on the Institute of Politics, for undergraduates of all disciplines to gather and discuss humanistic issues. SHARP, a new summer research program in the arts and humanities, will also launch next month.

“We need to show our audience, our students, that these four years are part of your pre-professional training, but in a way that’s not immediately connected to the concentration you will pick,” said Sorensen. “We’re trying to imagine that the education we are giving you will make you fabulous 21st century citizens with everything you’ll be asked to do, but without stripping you of your humanity.”

—Staff writer Brianna D. MacGregor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bdmacgregor.

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Humanities DivisionFacultyYear in ReviewFaculty NewsCommencement 2013