Are the Humanities History?

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Johann Moreelse: The Young Poet (Youth Transcribing Homer), circa 1630

Who is going to save the humanities?

On all fronts, fields like history and English, philosophy and classical studies, art history and comparative literature are under siege. In 2015, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities was down nearly 10 percent from just three years earlier. Almost all disciplines have been affected, but none more so than history. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of history majors nationwide fell from 34,642 in 2008 to 24,266 in 2017.

Last year, the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, facing declining enrollments, announced it was eliminating degrees in History, French, and German. The University of Southern Maine no longer offers degrees in either American and New England Studies or Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, while the University of Montana has discontinued majors and minors in its Global Humanities and Religions program. Between 2013 and 2016, US colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs.

The primary cause of these developments is the 2008 financial crash, which made students—especially the 70 percent of whom are saddled with debt—ever more preoccupied with their job prospects. With STEM jobs paying so well—the median annual earnings for engineering grads is $82,000, compared to $52,000 for humanities grads—enrollments in that area have soared. From 2013 to 2017, the number of undergraduates taking computer science courses nationwide more than doubled. A study of Harvard students from 2008 to 2016 found a dramatic shift from the humanities to STEM. The number majoring in history went from 231 to 136; in English, from 236 to 144; and in art history, from sixty-three to thirty-six, while those studying applied math went from 101 to 279; electrical engineering, from none to thirty-nine; and computer science, from eighty-six to 363. 

University donors and public officials, hoping to duplicate the success of Stanford and Silicon Valley, are flooding STEM with money. In September 2017, Cornell University opened a $2 billion tech campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island on twelve acres of land donated by the city, which kicked in an additional $100 million for the project. Columbia, which in 2010 opened a fourteen-story science center on its Morningside Heights campus, has recently built another, even larger one (designed by Renzo Piano) on its new Manhattanville campus. The City University of New York in September 2014 opened a 206,000-square-foot Advanced Science Research Center dedicated to disciplines like nanoscience, photonics, and neuroscience, while NYU is working closely with the city to transform an abandoned building in downtown Brooklyn into an innovation hub for STEM.

Few comparable investments are occurring in the humanities. The contempt many officials feel for them was expressed most bluntly in 2011 by then-Florida governor (now senator) Rick Scott: “You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state… I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees,” so that “when they get out of school, they can get a job.” It’s not just Republicans who feel this way. In 2014, President Obama, speaking at a GE gas-engine plant in Wisconsin, extolled the virtues of learning a vocational skill: “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Defenders of the humanities generally emphasize what the field can do for the individual: they promote self-discovery, breed good citizens, and teach critical thinking. In a 2017 essay in The Washington Post, “Why We Still Need to Study the Humanities in a STEM World,” Gerald Greenberg, the senior associate dean of academic affairs at Syracuse, maintained that by studying the humanities, “one has an opportunity to get to know oneself and others better.” Such study “opens one to the examination of the entirety of the human condition and encourages one to grapple with complex moral issues ever-present in life.” His argument was recently echoed by a writer for the Harvard Business Review: “A practical humanism, paradoxically, is of little use. When we turn to them for tips, but not for trouble, the value of the humanities is lost.”

No doubt the humanities do broaden the mind and deepen the soul. In one form or another, they have been at the heart of higher education since the founding of the university itself in the thirteenth century, and they remain a repository of a society’s cultural and creative values. But to dismiss their practical worth seems both short-sighted and self-defeating. Far from lacking material value, the humanities are economic dynamos. The arts and entertainment industry that plays such a central part in people’s lives today is largely the creation of people who have studied literature, history, philosophy, and languages. 

Overall, arts and culture contribute more than $760 billion a year to the US economy—4.2 percent of GDP. Compared to the tech industry, that may seem modest—Apple’s revenue alone totaled $265 billion last year, and its market capitalization is about $900 billion—but arts and culture employ nearly 5 million people in communities across the country. Moreover, the value of the liberal arts to society extends far beyond the numbers. They incubate ideas, provide ethical standards, and raise questions about the status quo—functions that are becoming ever more important as the tech world, ridden by scandal and crisis, faces a moment of reckoning.



A good place to begin in chronicling the material benefits of the humanities is the musical Hamilton. It began as a 900-page biography by Ron Chernow (who studied English at both Yale and Cambridge). At an airport while on vacation, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who studied theater at Wesleyan) bought a copy. Several chapters in, he got the idea for a stage adaptation. After a two-and-a-half-month sold-out run at the Public, the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and its vision of America as a nation of hard-working, striving immigrants has been playing to packed houses ever since. Ten months in, The New York Times offered a breakdown of its finances headlined “‘Hamilton’ Inc.: The Path to the Billion-dollar Broadway Show.” The Hamilton album had by then sold 428,000 copies, and a companion book sold more than 100,000 copies in less than two months. In 2017, the show began a national tour that took it to more than a dozen cities, creating jobs for thousands of actors, dancers, choreographers, costume providers, set designers, stage managers, lighting and sound engineers, and agents. Chernow’s book, meanwhile, has sold more than a million copies—a bonanza for his publisher, Penguin.

Thanks in part to Hamilton, the 2018 season was Broadway’s best ever, with more than $1.8 billion in revenue and 14.37 million attendees. Other fixtures include The Lion King, now in its twenty-second year, which was created by Julie Taymor (who studied mythology and folklore at Oberlin); Wicked, now in its sixteenth year, which is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire (who studied literature at the State University of New York and Tufts); and Frozen, which is based on the 2013 Disney film whose screenplay was written by Jennifer Lee (who studied English at the University of New Hampshire and got an MFA from Columbia). No algorithms were used in the making of these shows.

Another advertisement for the humanities is Shonda Rhimes. The founder of her own production company—Shondaland—this Dartmouth literature and creative writing graduate built a prime-time empire at ABC, anchored by the political thriller Scandal and the medical ensemble drama Grey’s Anatomy, now in its fifteenth season. She recently signed a deal with Netflix that will pay her $150 million in salary alone; she now has eight shows in production, including adaptations of Ellen Pao’s book Reset, about sexism in Silicon Valley, and The Warmth of Other Suns, the 2010 book by Isabel Wilkerson about the black migration from the Jim Crow South to the North and West.

Netflix is spending about $15 billion a year on programming—most of it for original shows. Hulu plowed $2.5 billion into content in 2017, but was already outspent by Amazon at $4.5 billion, which will rise to an estimated $6 billion this year, with Disney, FX, HBO, Showtime, and Apple competing as well. Apple’s recent decision to spend more than a billion dollars on programming reflects the fact that the market for its iPhones is becoming saturated. By providing video and other content, the company hopes to keep its users attached to their devices. Based on similar calculations, Google and Facebook are also joining the “arms race” for talent, as it’s been called. The binge-able programs these services crave is produced mainly by writers, filmmakers, and other alumni of humanities departments.


The economic multiplier effect of the humanities is especially strong in cities. A good example is Nashville. Starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere as country-music rivals, the show began airing on ABC in 2012 and moved to CMT in 2016, where it lasted until 2018. According to Butch Spyridon, the chief executive of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., the show had “a tremendous impact” on the city, boosting tourism while putting a spotlight on the city’s musical community. Created by Callie Khouri, who had majored in drama at Purdue until she went to LA, Nashville released 200 original songs, most of them written by Nashville songwriters; it also spurred coast-to-coast concert tours and helped the show’s performers break into the movie industry.

Black Panther, which grossed $1.347 billion worldwide, has enriched not only Disney and Marvel but also Atlanta, Georgia, where most of the movie was shot. The film’s producers spent $84 million statewide. And it’s not just the 3,000-plus cast and crew who benefited, says Craig Miller, the chair of the state’s film and music advisory commission: “The benefits of a film like Black Panther help everyone, from operators of the hotel rooms that are rented to the caterers to the people who provide the coolers to cool down the sets and the warmers to warm it up.” The movie’s director, Ryan Coogler, who attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts, was inspired in part by a new edition of the comic book Black Panther written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who studied history at Howard University.


While cities across the country are vigorously wooing tech companies, humanities graduates are helping to revitalize many urban neighborhoods. The best-known example is Soho. The flight of manufacturing from New York City had by the 1960s left that district full of abandoned warehouses. Taking advantage of its cheap rents, artists began moving into its lofts; galleries, boutiques, and restaurants soon followed. As rents soared, the artists and galleries began migrating to Chelsea, the East Village, and parts of Brooklyn, helping set in motion similar transformations.

More recently, Miami Beach’s hosting since 2002 of a satellite version of the annual Art Basel fair has had a catalytic effect on the city’s entire economy, bringing in more than $500 million a year. According to Jason Loeb, then chairman of its chamber of commerce, the fair “has taken Miami Beach from a resort and tourism destination to a destination for art and culture—which means big business for the city.” As artists became priced out of Miami Beach, they moved across Biscayne Bay to Wynwood, taking over its neglected warehouses and shuttered factories and adorning them with canvases and murals. Just to the north, a similar influx has transformed the Miami Design District, which is now home to more than a hundred galleries, showrooms, architecture firms, and high-end fashion stores and restaurants.

Miami is one of many cities undergoing a museum boom. The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, are but a few of the impressive showcases that have opened in recent years. American museums annually receive about 850 million visits—more than the combined attendance of all major league sporting events and theme parks. They are staffed by squads of historians, curators, archivists, conservators, designers, and guides, most of whom were trained in the humanities.

Unfortunately, most of the profits generated by art today go not to the artists but to galleries, auction houses, and, especially, wealthy collectors. The neighborhood revivals, meanwhile, are commonly set in motion by creative people willing to endure a marginal existence in the pursuit of their art and craft. As the neighborhoods improve and prosper, the advance guard is forced out, replaced by high earners eager to enjoy the new amenities. In short, those creating the value—along with many long-time residents of such districts—do not always reap the rewards.


There are few better examples of the hidden ability of the humanities to create an economic bounty than the story of the semiotics program at Brown. A seemingly abstruse field that analyzes signs and symbols in language, semiotics was introduced to Brown in 1974, after the arrival on American campuses of the work of Roland Barthes and other French theorists. This fashionable program became so popular that in the 1980s it got its own department, Modern Culture and Media. Graduates have included Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Eugenides, Ice Storm novelist Rick Moody, Far from Heaven director Todd Haynes, independent film producer Christine Vachon, and public radio’s Ira Glass.

When Glass graduated, in 1982, his parents took out a sardonic classified ad in the local newspaper: “Corporate office seeks semiotics grad for high paying position.” But Glass soon found work with public radio, and in 1995 he created This American Life, producing pieces that followed an arc of suspense and resolution—narrative building blocks that he had learned in his semiotics courses. In 2014, This American Life aired a show by two of its producers, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, about the 1989 murder of a high school student in Baltimore. It became Serial, an investigative true-crime podcast that reached 5 million downloads on iTunes faster than any other podcast in iTunes history, helping start the podcast boom.

In February, Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming company, reportedly paid more than $200 million to acquire the podcast company Gimlet Media (along with the technology site Anchor). Gimlet was co-founded by Alex Blumberg, formerly also a This American Life producer. It had an early success with Homecoming, a sci-fi series about a secret facility set up to test an amnesia-inducing drug on returning soldiers; in 2017, Amazon bought the rights and converted it into a TV series starring Julia Roberts. The big streaming services see in podcasting a popular and relatively cheap source of content, and they are investing heavily in it.

A favorite podcast subject is history: wars, dynasties, murder cases, political crises, geopolitical struggles, corporate rivalries—all have proved rich fodder for audio storytelling. The podcast network Wondery, for instance, offers “American History Tellers,” examining events ranging from the American Revolution to the space race. It builds on the success of two earlier series, “Tides of History” and “Fall of Rome.” According to Patrick Wyman, the creator of both, “there’s a substantial public audience—and market—for history; it’s just not a market or audience that academic history is geared toward reaching, since we’re never taught how mass media works.” Wyman, who has a doctorate in history from USC, has said that one reason he wanted to do a series on Rome is that he “was frustrated with academia’s lack of interest in engaging with the general public. People like history—just look at the New York Times bestseller list—but not enough historians actually take the time to try to talk to the interested public.”

It seems paradoxical that the interest in history is surging just as enrollments in it are plunging. Wyman’s comment hints at an explanation. The problems facing the humanities are in part self-inflicted by the academy. Historians and philosophers, literature profs and art historians too often withdraw into a narrow niche of specialization, using an arcane idiom that makes their work inaccessible to the uninitiated.

An obvious remedy would be to place more stress on good writing; courses on how to write for the informed laity should be central to all humanities instruction. But the humanities need a more thorough overhaul, drawing on the tools developed by the tech world to capture and convey the complex, tortured, confounding, and inspiring story of human cultures and civilization. The vogue-ish term “digital humanities” usually refers to the use of computing to archive and analyze texts and records, but practitioners could apply digital technologies to create works that appeal beyond the ivory tower. For instance, the podcast Irish History—currently the most popular digital audio show in Ireland—offers a two-hour “Dublin Famine Tour” that uses multimedia effects to recreate what the city was like in 1845.

The social value of the humanities will surely grow as Big Tech confronts its proliferating problems, from election meddling, data mining, and anti-competitive practices to the spread of hate speech, collaboration with the military, and hostility to labor unions. The heady early days of tech-utopianism seem a dim memory. Critical perspectives like John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood and Alex Gibney’s documentary The Inventor about the downfall of Theranos have alerted people to the moral mire into which biochemists, software engineers, and tech entrepreneurs can fall when cut off from people knowledgeable about ethics, psychology, and social history.

The search for fixes in the tech world should create new openings for humanities graduates. In June 2018, for instance, Google announced a set of seven principles to guide it in developing artificial intelligence, and just last month it unveiled an external advisory board to monitor their application. But the board is top-heavy in computing specialists, and it includes the head of a company that collects and analyzes drone data (as well as the head of the Heritage Foundation). It is, says Mike Ananny, who teaches communication and journalism at the USC Annenberg School, “a fig-leaf exercise”—one that leaves the technologists and engineers in charge. It’s not enough for Facebook to hire a few dozen liberal arts grads to monitor its platforms for hate speech, he says; its owners and managers need to address the incentives that encourage people to use its platforms in this way in the first place.

The technologists, Ananny warns, “are not going to willingly give up their power.” In the battle ahead, the crucial players will be those trained in how the humanities, social sciences, and technology intersect—what he calls the “missing middle.” Communications schools and media studies programs are key trainers of such people, teaching the communication skills, analytical capabilities, and critical insights needed to challenge the business model of these companies, especially their drive for traffic and profits. An important new field is STS—science and technology studies—which examines the effects of technology on society. “We have to break out of the tech-first world where engineers lead and we’re all left to pick up the pieces and make do,” Ananny says.

In the brave new world that is emerging, the humanities will have a critical part to play—provided that they themselves can adapt to it.

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