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As Many Mourn the ‘Death of the Humanities,’ Harvard Profs. Say It’s Not That Simple

The common tale has been that the humanities are dying — but some Harvard professors push back against the narrative.
The common tale has been that the humanities are dying — but some Harvard professors push back against the narrative. By Catherine H. Feng

The humanities have been dying for decades, or so the story goes.

At Harvard, the percentage of students graduating with a degree in the humanities has halved in the past 50 years. While students gravitate toward more lucrative fields such as consulting or finance, Harvard has doubled down on science, making heavy investments in STEM including the billion dollar Science and Engineering Complex.

To many, the humanities appear incongruent with a university increasingly focused on preparation for professional life, instead existing primarily for their own sake.

But many professors in the Arts & Humanities division say that’s exactly how it should be.

David M. Levine, a professor of Theater, Dance, and Media, said that “the humanities do best when they don’t have to justify their existence, because their whole thing since Kant has been purposiveness without purpose,” referring to the 18th-century German philosopher.

Concern over the future of the humanities in higher education comes at a time when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is undergoing a three-year strategic planning process to evaluate the state of its departments.

Last semester, a since-scrapped proposal to consolidate various small language programs into a “Languages, Literatures, and Cultures” concentration incurred criticism from professors who said that the proposal targeted departments with fewer concentrators.

But while some professors said the humanities may need to modernize, they do not need to be saved.

Daniel Heath Justice, a visiting professor of Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration, said that “people have been bemoaning the death of the humanities, at least since the 19th century.”

“So I’m always a little leery about presuming that the humanities are on life support at this point,” he added.

Alexander Rehding, a professor of Music, added that “to a certain extent, the humanities are in a perpetual state of crisis.”

“That’s partly what makes them the humanities, and it’s that reflexive ideal of the humanities that to be in the humanities means to think about what it is that you’re doing and why. That is really fundamental to what the humanities are doing,” he said.

While the humanities may not be imminently withering away, some professors objected to the notion that these disciplines have outlived their usefulness and profitability.

Vijay Iyer, a professor of Music and African and African American Studies, said that the death of the humanities narrative “is outside pressure to somehow rejustify the existence of the humanities.”

“It’s sort of like this made up problem,” he added. “It’s coming at us from the outside. It’s coming at us from the corporatization of American life – of public life.”

Tommie Shelby, a professor of African and African American Studies and Philosophy, said that with rising tuition costs, some students may turn away from the humanities in favor of a more lucrative field.

“College is very expensive, especially at places like Harvard,” Shelby said. “Many people want to study something that they think would be practically useful to them in their careers and job prospects and opportunities to make income.”

“Humanistic study doesn’t generally have that kind of character,” he added.

But some professors pushed back against the idea that humanities departments need to better market themselves to students.

“It’s the most humanities thing in the world to say, ‘Yeah, our problems could all be solved through better language,’” Levine said.

“I think there are forces at work that go a lot deeper than internal messaging. I don’t know how much of a difference internal messaging can actually make,” he added.

Doris Sommer, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and African and African American Studies, emphasized “disinterestedness” — which she described as an open and unprejudiced attitude toward art and culture — as a core tenet of the humanities, arguing that the field does not need to justify itself.

“I don’t think many humanists would find even that legitimate because if disinterest is the bulwark of the humanities, why should anyone have to explain themselves?” Sommer said. “It’s self evident.”

In a February interview, Stephanie Burt, a professor of English, likened her department to the National Park Service.

“If you work for Grand Canyon National Park, you would like people to visit the Grand Canyon,” Burt said.

“You would also like to have the Grand Canyon stick around and not be filled with trash and have people who study tiny little blue lizards that run around in the Grand Canyon be able to study them,” she added. “There is a ‘preserve and appreciate and love and make available’ mission to departments that study the arts that I really believe in.”

Shelby echoed the idea that the importance of the humanities goes beyond their instrumental value.

“I think it’s got to be that you have to make the case in terms of the intrinsic value of this kind of understanding, of being a curious person, of being a person who’s concerned about the beautiful and the good,” he said.

—Staff writer Stella M. Nakada can be reached at stella.nakada@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Luka Pavikjevikj can be reached at luka.pavikjevikj@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @LPavikjevikj.

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