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Twilight of the Humanities

The college liberal arts are all but undone—and the fault is their own.

The liberal arts have faced many reversals in recent years. Amid campus protests, emptying classrooms have provided a reality check that even sympathetic provosts and deans can’t ignore. From the Ivy League to community colleges, an increasing number of students think vocational and pre-professional degrees yield better job prospects than humanities programs.

This can be a powerful misconception—for example, a classics major might be a huge asset in law-school admissions—but soft-edged academic programs and polemical courses sustain the reputation. Most troubling, faculties have been architects of their own undoing.

Translations, compilations, encyclopedias, and monographs fill vast libraries, available for a life of reflective study. Yet for vanguard professors who describe themselves as intellectual terrorists and change-agents, received and preserved knowledge is the problem. Restoration is neither a possibility nor a solution. The benign, confident interpretations prevalent in 20th-century academe cannot be recaptured. The Wedgwood was smashed a generation ago. Yet it’s uncertain what symbols and ideas will ultimately supplant past models. It is more exciting to smash Wedgwood than to build new shelving. But what is left, after the fun, besides janitorial work?

To contain fixed labor costs, colleges foist as much instruction as possible onto teaching assistants, cut-rate lecturers, and adjuncts on short-term contracts. This is not a feasible business plan. Many senior academics have reaped tenure’s benefits while simultaneously gutting it. A self-absorbed portion of the professoriate, counting on its shield, will likely retire before the system finally folds. Its successors will be left to pick up the pieces.  

In both selective and non-selective schools, trends are unmistakable and parallel. Even in elite colleges steeped in the liberal arts, the humanities are losing students. At Harvard College, for example, from 2008 to 2016, English concentrations dropped from 236 to 144. History concentrators declined just as precipitously, from 231 to 146. Meanwhile, applied math concentrators rose from 101 to 279; computer science increased from 86 to 363; and statistics soared nearly tenfold, from 17 to 163, the three fields comprising an emerging interdisciplinary complex. STEM enrollments—along with those in health and public administration—are steadily rising.

Nationwide, history majors are down about 45 percent from their 2007 peak. The number of English majors has fallen by nearly half everywhere since the late 1990s. At one flagship state university, English majors numbered approximately 900 a generation ago. That fell to 600 by 2008, and today stands at about 300. If it weren’t for distribution and diversity requirements, literature, history, and philosophy enrollments would be dropping faster than they are.

Northeastern University historian Benjamin M. Schmidt, who analyzes college enrollment trends, has previously minimized falling humanities numbers in light of higher education’s long-term expansion. He recently reversed himself in an Atlantic essay and subsequent American Historical Association report. Schmidt calls the humanities implosion a “crisis” with “continuing ramifications for what American universities will look like for years to come.” The decline might portend what he thinks could be a “longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students.” It beckons changing student priorities “which are being formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom.”

“We used to count on the humanities faculty to open students’ eyes to what it means to be human,” says Harry R. Lewis, Harvard professor of computer science and former college dean. The age-old draw was to determine how earlier individuals and societies coped with the human condition; how they defined moral character and the lack of it; and what standards of excellence inspired and guided them. Exploring “what it means to be human” included the chance to savor models of sublime beauty and eternal truth. These inquiries carried cachet and prestige, but the university might be turning its back on teaching students what it means to be human. Humanities faculties today claim these are delusional, futile pursuits, leaving students looking for direction empty-handed and ignorant of time-honored wisdom.


Lacking self-awareness, many liberal arts professors blame “soulless” business schools and STEM programs for their woes. Capitalist greed and technocracy are at fault, they insist. In fact, motivated, highly industrious students, who come from modest circumstances and are often foreign-born, are exactly what colleges and universities seek out. Their outlook toward higher education tends toward the contractual and transactional. Coming as likely as not from distressed circumstances, they want to monetize what they have learned. Family expectations that graduates will do something to advance their finances and status often drive the education project. Such students are not mere careerists and grinds. They want to avoid economic hardship that they have known firsthand, unknown to cosseted children of privilege. Forgoing shared assumptions of reality, and making ambiguity and uncertainty their studies’ core, the liberal arts might seem pointless in the minds of increasingly practical students.

The sciences are able to devalue moral judgment and empathy more easily than the humanities. That is not a good thing, as faculties drained of benevolence might be monsters, but there are right answers in science, at least most of the time. The sciences can protect their integrity through built-in empiricism, proofs, and replication. The humanities do not enjoy such innate protection. For students who want a baccalaureate credential, but who don’t want to work too hard, the humanities and social sciences offer fail-free courses of study that the hard sciences do not.

Not all able students think crafting a philosophy of life is an unaffordable luxury. As University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson’s popularity demonstrates, many youth remain starved for models of thought and action. These include those forcibly dispossessed of once hallowed traditions, possibly ridiculed if Christian, tainted by ancestry, cast as unduly privileged. But perennial wisdom that flows from Athens and Jerusalem is not where the action is, according to most humanities faculties, unless it’s there to be flogged and ridiculed, or re-purposed to serve contemporary polemics. The weaponized humanities offer students little except angst and ressentiment, which is what a few seek—but not many—and probably not the most discerning, well-adjusted, or personable among them.

Inclusion’s march through the liberal arts and all of higher education means careers for overseers, gatekeepers, and enforcers lodged in human resources and diversity offices—but competition for such sinecures is fierce. For capable students of all backgrounds, a career in medicine, law, finance, and STEM offers greater professional opportunity, financial security, and freedom of thought than a career in academe. What individual would want to make a career in the humanities or social sciences without the right mindset and intersectional pedigree? Who would risk failure if, for whatever reason, they were deemed insufficiently multicultural? The humanities brain drain—the loss of raw talent—should deeply frighten professors and provosts, but so far it does not.


The critique of the humanities thus circles back to self-induced troubles. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker observed in The New Republic in 2013, the humanities had “yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.” What English philosopher John Gray has since called an “inquisitorial culture” seeking to end the “ideal of unfettered inquiry” was already escalating on campuses.

These dispositions have been a long time coming. In 1997, a dozen distinguished scholars appraised the situation in an outstanding essay collection called What Happened to the Humanities? Postmodernism already constituted a driving, revolutionary force on campus, most agreed, with faculties stressing the indeterminacy and duplicity of language, obsessing over identities and power relationships, and radiating intense hostility to Western achievements. The late, eminent University of Michigan classicist John D’Arms suggested that if the humanities declared truth to be contingent, reality constructed, and all value conditional, they might lose appeal. As the humanities distanced themselves from ordinary life and undermined tradition, several scholars warned, they might lose their audience, funding, and credibility.

Twenty years later, activists seeking “de-colonization” demand scrutiny and disestablishment of “white” and “European” standards. The West’s canonical ideas are not only overvalued: they are evil. Europeans acquired their prosperity illegitimately. Their descendants and other global capitalists pillage the Third World, extracting commodities, including food, and selling them on First World exchanges. The West has created an inherently unstable “life system,” developed in Europe, that is not sustainable and is destroying the natural environment. The Grand and the Beautiful is a lie. The spread of democracy and other Western political ideas, the literacy and education, and the science and logic bestowed on the world in fact are global cancers. They are to be exposed as rancid lies designed to baffle and enslave the vulnerable. Mimetic art trying to realize the exquisite and beautiful? That too is a lie, to be deconstructed and exposed, Theodor Adorno-style, for its seductive, evil craft.

The deposition of established masterworks proceeds inside academe, impervious to external criticism. Yet at some point equivocation is impossible. Is it to be Charpentier or the Bomba? The courtly and measured or vernacular and spontaneous? What will be the core of humanities content? What will be its biases? If Western civilization is suppressed or declared anathema, what will comprise alternate moral ideals and standards of perfection?

Senior professors—as do curators and other cultural stewards—cope with relentless criticism from junior colleagues of anything that doesn’t fit newly prescribed standards of what’s right and just. Some wonder if they have hastened their own irrelevance, while others do their best to retrofit, often awkwardly. Many seasoned humanities professors still picture themselves at the barricades, the times a-changin’, and seek to remain radical evergreens.

On vanguard campuses never-ending revolutionary theater is public and inescapable. At bellwether Duke University, for example, a Queer Theory broadside asks, “How are sexual identities related to social hierarchy?” Next to it a LatinX: Literature, Aesthetics, Practices program promises that “scholars from across the nation distill the LatinX present, sharing their perspectives on the LatinX category as well as LatinX knowledge and cultural production.” A four-color advertisement for a course in Global Men and Masculinities offers a “transnational approach to male bodies, desires, and lives using critical feminist scholarship.” Across the nation faculty office doors display rainbow stickers, like Good Housekeeping seals of approval, demonstrating “allyship” with LGBT. Trigglypuff shouts down Christina Hoff Sommers at the University of Massachusetts. Shrieking Girl berates professor Nicholas Christakis at Yale University. Charles Murray gets roughed up as a racist at Middlebury College in pristine, virtuous Vermont.

Studying the achievements and organizing ideas of Western civilization should be at the center of a liberal education, the esteemed Yale classicist and historian Donald Kagan has argued. The West’s unprecedented freedom and scientific knowledge together made possible a level of health and material prosperity undreamed of in earlier times and unknown outside it until very recently. “The civilization of the West…was not the result of some inevitable process through which other cultures will automatically pass,” Kagan observed. Recourse to non-Western societies, polities, and cultures for social salvation is doomed, since advanced society derives from Greco-Roman antiquity’s civic and intellectual gifts. Outside the West, government authority is rarely subject to secular, reasoned critiques. Critical dissent might land you in prison or dead. This is a powerful argument, but Kagan’s position is out of favor. More to the point, it is becoming an illegitimate position, one that is subject to censure.

Many sensible academics realize that matters are out of control. Establishing a new LGBT interdisciplinary studies program is not their idea of must-do curriculum reform. But saying so out loud in a faculty meeting risks professional ruin. Learned scholars work to avoid incendiaries out of self-protection, since contests or ultimatums might trigger a departmental or campus meltdown resolved at their expense. With incredulity, or bemused detachment, they watch collegial inquiries narrow into incomprehensibility, intersectional trivia, and pure confection. The revisionism and multiculturalism of the late 20th century seem straightforward—even earnest—beside such hothouse propagations.

Deviation can lead to character assassination. Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla argued shortly after the 2016 presidential election that identity politics were producing “a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” According to Lilla, “obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” In retaliation, Katherine Francke, an activist Columbia law professor and director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, accused Lilla of accommodating white supremacism in the Los Angeles Review of Books. In such an academic climate, cool-headed observers must ask: might scholars, curators, librarians, and overseers of cultural repositories be on the intellectual road to refiguring Western civilization as an instrument of white supremacy?  

In 2014, Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana declared himself upon inauguration to be an “ally” of Black Lives Matter-style activists, stating that “diversity of our student body” should be at the forefront of a “paradigm shift.” Assisted by the university’s president, eager to “advance a culture of belonging,” he helped to establish a Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging to recast and articulate the college’s future. Harvard Kennedy School Academic Dean Archon Fung, a co-chair of the commission, stated at the onset: “Without self-conscious efforts to create more inclusive environments, we reproduce behaviors and practices and a culture that is suited probably to people who’ve been here for a long time, but not suited to the different kinds of people who now are part of the community.”

With barely concealed malice, deans Khurana and Fung seem ready to pave over Harvard’s civic, economic, and cultural inheritances, in essence declaring them unsuitable for the students of the future. To object to or to defend the behaviors and culture suited to people who’ve been here for a long time but not suited to the different kinds of people who now are part of the community means you simply don’t belong at Harvard—or for that matter in respectable society.

At Yale University until 2017, the gateway course to the English major featured eight poets, Geoffrey Chaucer to T. S. Eliot. But students demanded a revised curriculum, calling the Western canon harmful, not just to students of color but to everyone. They sought “de-colonization,” arguing that diversity was inherently canonical and Eurocentric. When confronted, Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, replied, “I am too weary to comment again on this nonsense.”

Bloom was right, but like Kagan, he is at the end of his career and far removed from departmental politics. His successors, mid-career tenured faculty, do not take this to be nonsense. To find a compromise, the department later demoted early English literature to include an option of contemporary Anglosphere literature. “We’ve constructed a curriculum that has inclusion as its goal, embedded in the structures of its requirements, and I’m very excited to implement and develop that curriculum further,” said Jessica Brantley, Yale’s director of undergraduate curriculum, signaling her intentions for the future.


The “process of promotion and tenure has had a particularly noxious effect on the humanities,” Harry Lewis stresses. Adopting and enforcing a style of social conscience results in increasingly divisive school climates he thinks are “chilling to discourse.” Humanists, like scientists, try to keep up with emerging trends in the field. Seeking originality, they favor apprentices that challenge traditional content that might to them seem stale or outdated. For humanities scholars, unlike scientists, few opportunities are left to make great discoveries after centuries of exhaustive archival collection, investigation, appraisal, and interpretation. Transgendered themes in Leonardo da Vinci will elicit attention, as appreciative appraisals of 18th-century British landscape will not. The tenure-track Ivy League job goes to the specialist in Senegalese hip-hop, not to the Schubert scholar.

At most colleges and universities the faculty and administrative apparatus that controls hiring and promotion, academic presses, and discretionary money feels obligated to go with the intellectual flow. Mediocre colleges and universities teem with copycat professors who seek to bring postmodern style and identity politics to the provinces. They do so unimaginatively, so that questionable theories, social subversion, and transgressive antics get dumbed down into further mediocrity. Campus diversity managers act as useful, busy sextons, controlling a profusion of non-academic administrative units, overseeing bundles of regulations, making certain that no campus nook or cranny escapes inclusion’s attention, overseeing a never-ending parade of identity festivals, and policing forbidden thought zones.

Inside shrinking academic fields—where egotism and competition run high—a few lucky winners exert great power. On account of tenure, even as talent goes elsewhere, guild nepotism ensures smooth transfer of power to toadies and loyalists. Getting hired and promoted might require diversity statements and diversity-friendly scholarship to prove fidelity to the catechism. Second-rate institutions continue to manufacture credentialed would-be professors with almost no hope of steady employment. Under-enrolled tenured professors with time on their hands and deans on their side often turn to salaried campus activism, soaking up campus resources and soft money. Folding humanities professorships and graduate programs at institutions will be inevitable, and in many cases, a purgative, made more difficult by professors who refuse to retire.

The outlook is not promising. Assaults on reason, privilege, and canonical knowledge have not ended and they could escalate. Original discourse and thinking might of necessity relocate to places where traditional definitions of quality and canonical knowledge are not ritually despised. But study and preservation of discredited artifacts and a despicable past are not likely to draw many patrons or top talent.

The ars liberalis prevailed over theology in the 19th century and flourished at American colleges, designating the learning that free men required. This matrix of knowledge long informed the nation’s discourse, civic principles, and moral examples. Once, in better circles, and among U.S. statesmen, educators, and clergy, familiarity with classical and modern markers was simply expected. Whether minds so furnished will be sought in the future remains uncertain. The timeless might endure and the faddish fade away, but there are no guarantees.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.