Fraying at the Edges

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a three part series on the decline of the humanities in academia and Stanford in particular.

Science has come to the humanities, so to speak.  Several news reports in recent weeks have discussed the development of the Literature Lab at Stanford, a group of scholars devoted to using computational approaches to studying texts, the traditional realm of the humanities.  Using these new techniques and the growing size of Google Books, scholars like Matthew Jockers hope to build and possibly disrupt the current narratives in literature history.

Will such research be the future of the humanities?  Will a scientific and quantitative approach increase the attention of funding agencies in Washington to the needs of the humanities?  Or will this direction destroy the very core of what the humanities are about?

Such are the debates that surround the increasingly marginalized humanities disciplines.  Once at the core of the university, the humanities are fraying on nearly every measure, losing students, budgets, faculty slots and more fundamentally, power and influence.  How did we reach this point, and what will the future of the humanities be?  This three part series hopes to illuminate the discussion by providing a history of higher education, a look at undergraduates and their approaches to education, and investigating the future finances of the humanities.

The Early Era (1636-1862)

Given the lack of access to primary and secondary schools for most Americans, universities in America were refuges of the elite for much of their early history, and the curriculums of these universities were designed with this demographic in mind.  Private schools were the near-exclusive institutions available in these early years, and most of these were connected with religious denominations (a pattern that had extended from the cathedrals of the Middle Ages).

These universities defined a broad curriculum in the classic liberal arts, and their requirements were strict compared to our current system.  There were few choices in classes, no concept of majors, and next to no courses in the “professions.”  Given the social networks at the time, universities formed the perspectives of students en route to the country’s elite, providing a common culture based on the bedrock of Western civilization.

The humanities were a core and arguably exclusive part of this education.  The development of the social sciences was just beginning (Adam Smith’s *The Wealth of Nations *was published in 1776, and its concepts were still considered part of philosophy), and the sciences were not clearly developed.

This early era was a period of little change in higher education.  America though, was hardly standing still.  The growing industrial character of the economy starting in the nineteenth century and the expansion of the Western frontier created more demand for talented workers – a need unfulfilled by colleges.  Yet within just a short period, American academia would be dramatically upended, transforming the nature of higher education and the future development of the system.

The Practical Transformation (1862-1945)

The first major event that shook the higher education system was the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 in the heart of the Civil War.  The act transferred federal land to states to be used for the creation of new universities that would target practical fields (many of these still bear the moniker “A&M” referring to Agricultural and Mechanical).  For the first time, the idea of practical training and specialization were placed at the heart of the university, supplanting the whole person approach of the humanities.

University curriculums also adapted to the changing needs of society and started the first changes to their curriculums.  Schools developed the concept of the “major” that would offer specialization in a specific field of study, while also creating the notion of general education requirements to provide breadth of study.

The end of the century also saw the development of the first notion of the research university (Johns Hopkins in 1876 and University of Chicago in 1890, and of course, Stanford).  These universities placed new emphasis on graduate training and original research, transforming the role of professors as teachers to professors as investigators.  The goals of this new vanguard of universities were also different.  Stanford’s founding grant notes the object of the university as being “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.”

The humanities still played a crucial role in the education of undergraduates, but their hold was clearly loosening.

The Era of Government and Big Science (1945-Present)


The Manhattan Project fundamentally changed the relationship between government and the universities.  Beginning in World War II, universities for the first time accepted funding from the federal government for specific research projects.  Importantly, these projects had indirect overhead, meaning that the government provided cost-plus on research grants – a form of profit for the universities.

Stanford and its provost, Frederick Terman, used such contracting to build up its academic programs, focusing on the most lucrative areas to create “steeples of excellence” that would attract further scholars and resources.  Terman’s plan laid the foundation for Stanford’s rise from a notable regional school to the elite status it holds today.

However, grants were not equal among fields, and the humanities were (and remain) dead last for funded support.  Interestingly, the launch of Sputnik in 1957 is popularly conceived as a boost for science and engineering, but the main funding act that followed it also provided significant funds for area studies and foreign language training.  Even so, the humanities continued to greatly trail the sciences in funding.

As prestige followed money, the humanities slowly withered, helped in part by the growing proportion of Americans attending college looking for practical training.  The number of majors in the humanities peaked in the early 1970s for many universities, and it has since been on a slow and interminable decline.

Staunching this decline was even more difficult as the nature of the humanities became more contested by faculty approaching research with new theoretical frameworks.  Postmodernism and other approaches to the humanities provided exciting new analytical avenues in approaching problems, but these new complications were not as well received by students as by faculty.

This increasing conflict was in direct contrast to the narrative being built by President Ronald Reagan over the “evil empire” of the USSR and American triumphalism over communism.  This divide underpinned much of the culture wars of the 1980s.  When Stanford removed the Western canon from the freshman year in lieu of the Cultures, Ideas, and Values program, it led to a famous issue of Newsweek with a cover reprinting the famous painting Death of Socrates and an article asking if Stanford was causing the “Decline of the West.”

Little changed in the twenty years that have transpired – the major trajectories of history have remained intact.  Funding for the humanities has always remained tenuous, under constant threat in Congress and unsupported by a natural constituency.  Despite an increased emphasis on other cultures after 9/11, there has not been another Sputnik moment for funding area studies.

Today, the humanities are under serious threat as we approach the endpoint of these patterns.  For-profit universities, which take an increasing proportion of undergraduate-level students, are largely devoid of humanistic education, and state-funded universities decline to increase budgets – disproportionately affecting the humanities.

However, rebuilding the ideal of a humanistic education will not be easy.  As this history shows, the humanities have been fighting a losing battle for more than a century, with few victories.  The current structure of the academy is also not suited to the humanities, making reform of crucial importance.  As we progress to the next two segments of this series on the humanities, this background will provide crucial context for understanding the decisions facing humanities scholars.

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