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The Great Recession and the Humanities

At a recent workshop on building the research university of the 21st century, there was a wonderful discussion of the need for the insights and way-of-thinking common to the humanities for many of the key global challenges. The speaker noted that although the laboratories and equipment of scientists seem foreign to the intense cognition and reflection of the humanist, the work of the two groups of scholars is united by a common quest for meaning. Both sets of scholars attempt to glean understanding where there are ambiguity and clarity and where there is chaos. It was a welcomed and spirited argument supporting the role of the arts and humanities in the modern university.

That talk, several new books, and reports of scholarly groups are part of an increasing appreciation of the humanities. The evidence is accumulating that the humanities are uniquely valuable in generating the creative minds that lead unusually successful lives in modern society. Yet there does seem to be a mismatch in enrollment patterns at US universities and that argument.

I wandered into an interesting study that asked the question, “Do US students’ choices of undergraduate major follow the business cycle?” The study examined the experiences of college graduates from 1960 to 2011, a period that experienced several recessions. The findings are separated by the gender of the student.

In the face of periods of higher unemployment, undergraduate women tend to choose majors that are generally associated with male-dominated careers. For example, they move into business, finance, accounting, and computer-related fields. They also tend to choose nursing, a major with direct job targets. The majors that are disadvantaged during such periods of high unemployment are literature, languages, sociology, history, and education. Among males the story is similar, with periods of higher unemployment yielding more majors in engineering, accounting business, natural sciences, and relatively fewer majors in history, literature, languages, sociology, and political science.

In a 1780 letter to his spouse, John Adams wrote, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce, and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine [sic].” It appears that times of economic hardship, as well as times of political strife, generate a refocusing to individual economic welfare.

What does this mean for the arts and humanities? I don’t pretend to know. However, one hopeful interpretation would be that the negative effects of the great recession of 2008-2009 on the selection of majors might be dissipating over the coming months and years, as the US economy recovers from the shock. If past history is replicated, if the macroeconomic performance dampens concerns over one’s short-run economic welfare, the percentages of undergraduates majoring in the arts and humanities should increase in future cohorts. This benefit might also be enhanced with increasing public discourse about the value of liberal education to drive innovation through creativity.

Georgetown possesses deep strength in the arts and humanities. Its devotion to liberal education, including the humanities, has contributed young minds who have become leaders in an innovation society. I’m hopeful that a growing economy will lead to wider societal support for the humanities; in the meantime, vigilance to preserve this strength for future generations of Hoyas is important.

8 thoughts on “The Great Recession and the Humanities

  1. Like other commentators on this post, I greatly value the role of the humanities in a liberal education (for example, I took a year away from science to serve as acting head of music and dance), and I strongly support the view that the work of scientists and humanists is “united by a common quest for meaning.”

    But I worry that by saying “the laboratories and equipment of scientists seem foreign to the intense cognition and reflection of the humanist” the Provost might be taken to endorse the profoundly mistaken view that intense cognition and reflection are the special province of the humanities (a view that I hope and believe he does not hold), or that education in the sciences at Georgetown has a vocational focus, as Bill Kuncik seems to suggest.

    These misconceptions frustrate appreciation of the common quest that Provost Groves so valuably emphasizes. We all live under the canopy of the liberal arts, and despite superficial differences in language, tools, and approach, we should strive to understand, appreciate, and support one another to maintain its integrity.

    Joe Serene
    Professor of Physics, emeritus

    • I completely agree with everything Professor Serene says. I consider the natural sciences and mathematics, both as taught at Georgetown and in and of themselves, to be liberal arts. I referred specifically to the humanities and social sciences because they were the disciplines Provost Groves mentioned in his blog entry, to which I was responding. And indeed my scientist friends, especially the physicists, are among the deepest thinkers I know.

      By “vocational” majors, I meant ones whose curricula align closely with job functions, like business, finance, computer science and engineering. And let me add that vocational and liberal arts majors are equally worthy of respect and both important to society.

      I thank Professor Serene for calling to my attention the ambiguity in my original statement, so that I could correct it.

      In any event, the issue at hand is each undergraduate determining which major best suits him or her. Job and career goals should be high–indeed at the top–of the list in reaching such decision.

      The related problem is that while undergraduates (and their parents) generally understand the job and career benefits imparted by vocational majors, they (and their parents) often do not fully appreciate the job and career benefits imparted by liberal arts majors, including the natural sciences.

      As a number of the commenters point out, and speaking myself as a parent of recent college graduates, that is a situation the University can and should correct.

      Bill Kuncik
      Georgetown MALS

  2. In a word cloud of contemporary public discourse, the dominant adjective would probably be “iconic” (“Google redesigns iconic logo for the fifth time”). Another ubiquitous word just now is “narrative” (“Mets change the narrative”). Last week, at the Conference of Administrative Officers of the American Council of Learned Societies, ACLS president Pauline Yu described the overuse of “iconic” and “narrative” as symptomatic of a “general yearning” for what humanists do: we search for meaning through symbols and stories. If yearning is provoked by a sense of loss, this is another way of arriving at Provost Groves’s “hopeful interpretation” of what economic recovery means for higher education–and for Georgetown, given its reputation for excellence in the arts and humanities.

  3. My thanks with Provost Groves for his post. I write to share a thought or two on the revealing quotation from John Adams:

    “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce, and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine [sic].”

    Two rhetorical figures are at work here here: climax, the arrangement of parallel clauses in order of increasing importance (“must study… ought to study… a right to study”); and anadiplosis, the repetition of the last word or phrase of one clause at the beginning of the next (“Mathematics and Philosophy… Mathematics and Philosophy”).

    Adams learned to order his thought and express it in powerfully arranged words from his classical grammar school education and then from his undergraduate years at Harvard College, where he studied logic and rhetoric, Greek and Latin, and scriptural interpretation. We would now say that his college education consisted primarily in subjects that are still at the core of the humanities: language, literature, history, rhetoric, philosophy, theology, and interpretation. In Adams’s day, training in these subjects was understood to be prerequisite for meaningful and effective participation in public life. Though much has changed in the last 250 years, I submit that this remains true.

  4. I am grateful for the Provost’s sensitive appraisal of the crucial role that humanities now play, and must continue to play, in the modern university, and for this post’s effort to think beyond the “two cultures” model that has falsely imagined science and the humanities as opposed since the model was first diagnosed by CP Snow in 1959. Far from addenda, adornments, or luxury goods, the interpretive analysis and creative historical thinking now generated in humanities departments are prerequisites for leadership in a complex society.

    In addition to those mentioned in the Provost’s previous post (“Data Skepticism”), another danger of data-driven approaches to, for example, enrollment patterns is that they convert matters of contingent historical correlation into extra-historical laws, so that the future is presumed to permanently repeat the past. But history need not determine the present. If enrollments in the humanities have trended downward during periods of financial stress, this is at least in part because students and their bill-paying parents have been insufficiently educated about the economic and other values of humanities thinking.

    Whether measured in income over lifetime, flexibility in a changing economy, or less quantifiable things like satisfaction with the course and meaning of one’s life, these values have been extensively, even exhaustively documented — by, for example, Association of American Colleges and Universities, but also Forbes, Time, the Atlantic, and Business Insider, among many others. Harvard at least has decided to work actively against the misperception that humanities and human flourishing don’t mix. One goal of their important task force on the humanities was to dispel in direct and concrete detail the many myths about humanities’ alleged obsolescence. Another goal was to propose concrete measures by which their university could institutionalize a renewed commitment to humanities work. (

    In the interdisciplinary working group I co-direct, and in the Georgetown English department more generally, we advance a vision of humanistic inquiry that is not opposed to or removed from the world but rather dynamically engaged with it. Far from offering a respite from hard work or a break from rigorous analysis, our courses train students in versatile and inventive modes of doing those things. These are modes of engagement –or so we believe in English, anyway– that sharpen the skills of creative analysis and concentrated attention that are as important now as they have ever been.

    I would challenge the administration to push forward with the humanities-focused agenda at which Provost Groves hints here, and even more boldly to institutionalize its commitments in that direction. The human person is, after all, built into our mission statement. Leading in the humanities –by committing to build a Humanities Center, for example, and by expanding materially the resources of humanities units already existing– would be a way to honor that mission.

    Nathan K. Hensley
    Assistant Professor of English and Co-director, Modernities Working Group (

  5. Thanks for this timely blog post, Dr. Groves. Beyond what students choose to major in, we might also consider the employment fates of those who do choose humanities majors– and we might make more of an effort to educate our student body about opportunities and possibilities they never thought of as attached to a humanities major. Few students are truly trained for the job they get post-graduation, let alone the multiple careers many younger adults embark on throughout their lives. In fact, more and more high profile employers are looking for adaptable employees– those with “transferable skills,” aka the critical thinking that comes with the humanities territory. So in addition to more “traditional” careers in teaching and public service, humanities majors are valued across different industries for their flexible brains, strong writing skills, innovative thinking, cooperative/inclusive approaches to working in teams, and their core sense of ethics. Here are just two of the many, many data-driven articles one could reference on why a humanities degree “pays off” for students in many, and rich, ways that students and even faculty and administration might not foresee if they see the future through a limited lens of “job training”:

    Thanks again for starting this important conversation about the role of the humanities in a time of great economic hardship and inequality.

  6. Provost Groves raises an especially important issue this week. Undergraduates today face a difficult dilemma. Should one chose a vocational major that is more likely to be helpful in landing one’s first job? Or a liberal arts major that could lay the foundation for greater long run success?

    From where I sit, once past early career, the world belongs to the liberal artists. Check out the educational history of just about any business, political or institutional leader, and you are likely to find a humanities or social science college major. It’s certainly true of my friends and acquaintances who fit such description.

    In my experience, there are two reasons for this. First, while both come into play, job performance ultimately depends more upon sound execution of certain fundamental skills–analytic thinking, cogent writing, persuasive speaking and effective interpersonal interaction–than it does on vocational knowledge. Liberal arts programs tend to do the better job teaching such skills.

    Second, as one’s career progresses, the management function becomes more important, and management is a liberal art. The knowledge of the human experience acquired in liberal arts programs provides a helpful framework in such regard that vocational programs do not.

    But then again, one must land that first job to get in the game at all. The choice is not easy.

    Given this, Provost Groves’ call to preserve the University’s strength in the liberal arts is both prudent and important. I would suggest two specific steps in such regard. First, Georgetown should actively and comprehensively educate undergraduates (and their parents) as to the pros and cons of both vocational and liberal arts majors. Second, Georgetown should not simply follow the current debate on the value of liberal arts education, but endeavor to shape that debate by publicizing the benefits of liberal arts education, particularly to employers.

    Bill Kuncik
    Georgetown MALS

  7. That is indeed an interesting study. On the other hand, I just today had a visiting lecturer from the GW school of business who informed my students that the trend in business schools nationally is very much to try to include the study of typical humanities issues (cultural difference, deep interpretation, etc.) because the academic leadership and the employers agree that the students need these abilities to be truly successful in their field. — I like how you slipped yet another one of these data-focused posts into a discussion of the humanities.

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