Revitalizing the Humanities at Harvard

Practical concerns and a global paradigm shift away from humanistic study have left dwindling enrollment and the need for reflection and repackaging

Jennifer Y Yao

Humanistic fields of study at Harvard and around the globe have experienced deteriorating enrollment due to changing attitudes toward the practicality of the humanities in modern society.

When students in Ursula Lindqvist’s first-year Swedish class introduced themselves by name and concentration to classroom guests last semester, she was shocked to hear what many of her students were studying.

“I was really surprised to hear student after student after student say ‘Economics,’” said Lindqvist, who will leave her position as Director of Undergraduate Studies for Scandinavian to teach at a small liberal arts college next fall. “I’ve been reading the journals that they’ve been writing...and it was really startling to realize that so many of them are leaning toward Econ. And there’s nothing wrong with Econ, but let’s face it—it’s the huge fall-back concentration, it’s the safe one.”

Lindqvist acknowledged that many students are genuinely interested in economics. But she also raised a concern expressed by students and faculty members alike: as uncertainty persists in the job market, undergraduates seem to feel pressure to choose “practical” fields of study that are thought to increase employment opportunities after college.

But future “success” may not correlate with present happiness. Senior exit surveys over the last three years have consistently shown that humanities concentrations have the highest satisfaction levels when compared to the natural sciences, social sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

As enrollment in the humanities has fallen, from 321 senior concentrators in 2010 to 284 in 2012, faculty and students are looking to counter what has proven to be a global shift away from the humanities.



In late April of this year, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha declared a global “crisis” for the study of humanities. Speaking at “The Humanities and the Future of the University,” a panel convened to discuss the uncertain future of humanistic scholarship, Bhabha highlighted a telling statistic: the amount of money dedicated to humanities research totaled less than half of one percent of the amount dedicated to science and engineering research and development in 2011.

According to national data that chair of the English department W. James Simpson said will be compiled into a report on the humanities to be published this month, the number of bachelor degrees earned in the humanities has declined from 14 to eight percent between 1966 and 2010.

As society increases focus on science and technology, many arts and humanities affiliates frame these statistics within a broader paradigm shift.

Diana Sorensen, divisional dean of the arts and humanities at Harvard, acknowledged that the rise of science has promised societal improvements but added that abandoning the humanities could be dangerous.

“As fast as that pace [of scientific research] has been, we feel that it hasn’t taken stock of the depth of humanistic reflection that would really inform that pace,” she said. “If you’re just hurtling yourself toward the future, you’re more likely to repeat mistakes.”


Harvard is not immune to the global trend, but professors are rethinking its causes.

“Up to about a year ago, there were three major reasons for declining concentrator numbers in the humanities. They were: admissions were geared toward scientists, that [the problem] is Harvard-specific, and that it’s to do with financial aid,” said Simpson. “We now know, a year on, that not one of those arguments withstands scrutiny.”

According to Simpson, students pick their concentrations based on intellectual curiosity and a desire to contribute positively to society—goals that students seem to think non-humanities concentrations will fulfill more effectively.


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