The Summer of Humanities Debates

Recent reports by a commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and by Harvard University have sparked a national conversation about humanities education in the twenty-first century. The dominant narrative circulating in the press paints a picture of persistent decline in the study of the humanities, but this picture is not supported by the evidence. What fields are included in “the humanities”?  What happens if we include fields like art history and area studies? What happens to the numbers if we consider the important expansion of women’s career choices since the 1950s and 1960s?

Please read the reports and commentaries below and join the conversation in which MLA members have been engaging. Two of the association’s former presidents, Russell Berman and Michael Bérubé, have recently made comments and written articles about the topic. The MLA’s executive director, Rosemary G. Feal, has spoken out in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed about the value of the humanities and urged institutions and the public to support the goals of the AAAS report.

To further its advocacy of the humanities, the MLA collects and analyzes data to illuminate complex issues and provide critical context for these discussions. The Executive Council is grateful to David Laurence, director of research, for presenting a more nuanced picture of trends in the study of the humanities in the inaugural post of The Trend, the blog of the MLA’s office of research. We encourage you to read his post and to share your comments on that blog or on the comment thread below.

Read “Mismeasuring the Humanities” on The Trend

For further coverage of The Heart of the Matter, visit the AAAS’s list of articles and op-eds.

Other recent articles on humanities education include


Marilyn Shapiro

The Wall Street Journal today, July13, had a very negative article advocating removing literature from the college curriculum because of methodologies used in teaching which he condemned. Of course he had read The Iliad, and other classic works himself, he claims, before college and so had appreciated the work itself without professorial dogma. Some person of note should write immediately to contradict his essay.

Profile photo of Marianne Hirsch Marianne Hirsch

There are so many things wrong with Lee Siegel’s article today that I decided it was not worth taking him on on his terms and in the newspaper that decided to publish such an anti-intellectual piece.

This is a provocation and mystification on a level to which we don’t need to descend.
The statistics Siegel cites have already been debated and reframed by David Laurence and others. His mimicry of the crisis in humanities argument is a caricature. Siegel’s history of literary study is spurious; his examples of laughable exam questions come from a Lionel Trilling essay published in 1961; and his elevation of the “classics of Western literature” to the level of the sacred leave little room for intelligent discussion.

I do think we need to respond to the argument that we ourselves are to blame for the decline in humanities enrollments, that theory and our specialized language are to blame. Siegel is just an extreme example of this troubling take. Conservatives fault us for no longer teaching truth and beauty, but this kind of (self-)blame is more widespread than that. We have to find ways of elucidating in clear language what we are aiming to teach in the literature classroom. But we have to do that in a space in which we can determine the terms of the discussion.

Profile photo of Margaret W. Ferguson Margaret W. Ferguson

I agree with Marianne Hirsch that replying to Lee Siegel in his own venue is not the best way to go. I was, however, so annoyed when I read the piece this morning that I drafted a reply that addresses just a few of the problems in his piece. Here it is, a practice essay that is both too long and too short for print-publication:

Lee Siegel is witty but wrong about the self-inflicted and not-to-be-lamented decline of the humanities in colleges and universities. He cites as a fact a statistic about decline that Michael Bérubé, David Laurence, and Ben Schmidt have contested, among others, and that needs careful framing rather than citation as the whole truth and nothing but. Moreover, Mr. Siegel prefers transfiguring private experiences between one great mind and another to the more humble experiences that occur in literature classrooms from K-16 as students learn how to read complex sentences in institutional settings where their interpretations of things like unfamiliar words (in early-grade texts) and, later, grammar, syntax, plot patterns and points of view need to be communicated to others and tested. The testing process, which doesn’t occur only through exams, can certainly be comical: I was required in high school to “explain the meaning of death” in three Shakespearean sonnets that had been discussed in class with the goal of deciphering the poems’ syntax and tricky logic. The teacher’s question was ambitious and scary; in tune with the complex temporality of teaching literature and language, I’d now like to go back to that question with sophomores in college who would give different answers than I did. My teacher fortunately did not assume that Shakespeare’s sonnets were “patchwork-clouds of associations” that, as Siegel confidently asserts, “no living person can understand.” If that were true, why read anything from the past?

Another question: Who is the “we” Mr. Siegel conjures up when he insouciently states that “we have all been sufficiently sparked and stoked by literature to make it part of our destiny by the time we graduate high school”? My students at UC Davis might give this sentence the benefit of the doubt by reading it not as silly but as ironic; they could then discuss the implications of defining literature as a sub- or supra-rational “spark” rather than as a phenomenon involving words whose meanings, including possibly ironic ones, can be debated in public. Instead of considering literature as a means of communication across time and space, Mr. Siegel treats it as if it were only a magical drug that takes away sadness when it’s consumed in private, without guidance from anyone.

Coda: for MLA readers who don’t share share Siegel’s view that guided learning about language and literature need not extend beyond high school, please see the “Common Core Standards Initiative Discussion Group” ( It’s a site for thinking about ways in which MLA members can engage effectively with high school teachers on questions about how the Common Core Standards for Language Arts will be implemented in the forty-five states that have adopted them. The discussion group grew from a new Executive Council Committee on K-16 education.

Profile photo of John Marx John Marx

Although I agree with Marianne Hirsch that we humanists could do better at explaining what we do in our classrooms and our research both to ourselves and to our publics, that hardly makes us unique. The sciences have this problem–as the likes of the global warming discussion suggest–and the social sciences do too.

I wonder whether scientists and social scientists are as frequently accused of ruining their students’ love of their subjects, however. Certainly, any one who teaches in the humanities has a repertoire of responses to Siegel’s sort of lament that the classroom kills one’s passion for literature, or painting, or the movies. I find it hard not to snark in response. It is, truly, heartbreaking to learn that literature has lost its radicalism and “incandescence” by being taught and analyzed. Surely, Siegel’s exemplary modernist DH Lawrence was pleased that he was able to savor the years before “Women in Love” was corrupted by being published, bought, and debated in and outside the academy (and the courts!). Anyone who uses phrases like “The old books will speak to the oldest part of us” should not be taken seriously. Siegel wants his literature pure. He doesn’t want it to live in the world.


It also speaks poorly of Siegel that he gets the critical scene from the Iliad wrong and so dilutes its power. Astyanax does not cry because Hector puts on his helmet, as if the infant understands that Hector is going off to battle. Rather, Hector arrives fully armed. Andromache cries and begs Hector to remain safely behind the city walls rather than risk widowing her and orphaning their child. Astyanax cries out in terror when the armored Hector reaches out to hold him. Then Hector and Andromache laugh, and Hector removes his helmet, reveals himself and takes Astyanax in his arms. The tension of the moment and the horrors and risks of war give way to the joy of domestic life — making Hector’s decision to return to battle all the more tragic and emotionally painful for the reader.

Elizabeth Miller

I agree that Siegel’s article is so wrongheaded that it is really not worthy of serious debate, but I can’t resist pointing out the ridiculousness of his claim that the study of literature is valueless as evidenced by the fact that it only came to be in the late 19th century. As anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of literacy will tell you, the second half of the nineteenth century was a watershed moment for the democratization of reading. In 1870 England passed the Forster Act which established universal public education, and consequently ensured at least a basic level of literacy for all of its citizens. Literacy and the teaching of literature are absolutely connected; it is no coincidence that this was also the moment when the teaching of English literature began in an organized manner in institutional settings. In fact, contra Spiegel, it does take more than “being human” to be able to read literature: you actually need to be able to read. If he is seriously suggesting that humans made it to the late nineteenth century without English classes, and therefore we don’t need English classes, he is essentially ignoring the fact that for centuries literature was only available to be read by the most privileged elites.

Profile photo of Richard C. Sha Richard C. Sha

Four questions:

1. After post humanism, is it even possible or desirable to rally around the humanities, as the human is now understood by some to license all forms of bad behavior, especially domination and appropriation. Heidegger thought the human subject prevented dwelling in the world, or the being of being. How might such rallying proceed without ignoring these critiques?

2. The humanities have long had an allergy to instrumentality and purpose, since Kant defined the human in terms of a resistance to external purpose. How then can we market ourselves as providing necessary skills and tools without taking seriously how instrumentality diminishes the human? As tuition and fees at top institutions tops 60,000 a year, however, can we afford not to make a concerted case that the humanities have value?

3. How can the digital humanities reframe the opposition between machines and the human into some form of Hegelian synthesis that moves beyond the now banal observation that we are all cyborgs?

4. Marjorie Levinson recently observed that the even in the hardest of sciences there has been a shift to humanistic thinking. She instances regularity resulting from randomness and intentionality emerging from complex systems (even evolution). Should the sciences then remain outside of the humanities, or can there be a way of leveraging this “triumph”? What would a humanities that embraced science look like?


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