A Humanities Haven?

The Editorial Board considers Amherst’s relationship to and role within the current crisis of the humanities.

“The humanities are in crisis.” It’s a popular sentiment in academic circles and for good reason: Nationwide, the number of humanities majors is trending downward and departments are shrinking. In recent issues of The Student, students in the Arts and Humanities in Action (AHA) Program have reflected on the valuable skills one develops with a humanities degree, as a way to push back against this crisis. But as an elite liberal arts institution that prides itself on exploration and interdisciplinary education, where can Amherst sit?

Growing economic uncertainty and rising unemployment rates have pushed students toward disciplines like STEM and Economics to ensure financial stability. A culture of hyperproductivity, on top of these anxieties, has forced us to instrumentalize college degrees for career preparation rather than education. These all contribute to the contraction of public support for and participation in humanities disciplines: In fiscal year 2022, the National Endowment for the Humanities had a budget of $180 million, 2 percent of the National Science Foundation’s $8.84 billion budget.

Foundational to a liberal arts education is a belief that humanities disciplines are important — that the study of human society and experience has both personal and societal value. Amherst students undeniably recognize this value: even in the midst of this crisis,  around 30 percent of the class of 2022 graduated with a humanities degree. Thanks to Amherst’s financial resources, certain institutional supports for the humanities have persisted amid government defunding: Resources like the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, events such as LitFest, and programs like Schupf and the Mellon Mays render Amherst students undeniably privileged in terms of access to the humanities. The crisis of the humanities, at Amherst, is not merely a microcosm of national trends.

Amherst seeks to provide a liberal arts education to a diverse student body, but enrollees are confronted by a landscape that contradicts this mission. The systemic inequality of the U.S. job market makes humanities studies and careers increasingly unobtainable for low-income, BIPOC, first-generation, and international students, all of whom occupy a relatively precarious position in the market and are incentivized to seek more secure careers. Humanities majors at Amherst should not be surprised by this reality, given the makeup of their classes.

While humanities professors acknowledge the scarcity of tenure-track positions in academia, there’s lack of support for humanities students seeking non-academic career paths. There is a much more clear understanding among STEM majors about what careers are available to them and how their skills could be applied in the workplace. Of course, a case can be made that society at large needs to change: the public must value skills from humanistic disciplines more, and the purpose of college should be reconceptualized. The explorative approach of liberal arts at Amherst can still make certain adaptations to stop declining enrollment in humanities departments. The AHA program is a laudable start, but the crisis of humanities at Amherst is about much more than a gap in understanding.

The availability of funding also limits the support that humanities students are able to receive at Amherst, since student research opportunities depend entirely on donor and department funding. The lack of funding for the humanities can be clearly seen when comparing summer research opportunities in the two disciplines. While STEM fields several different opportunities with faculty guidance, the only humanities-specific program, the Schupf Fellowship, enrolls 20 students yearly, and receives less faculty support. While some of these aspects are inherent in the differences between the fields — STEM professors can need more research assistance than their humanities counterparts —  the funding gap widens the inequity.

Funding new professorships and staff creates more student research opportunities, allows for more community-building within departments, and attracts higher class enrollment. Funding infrastructure can move humanities department out of sparse locations on campus and provide them with more public space. Additionally, humanities departments across academia, including Amherst’s, can be very insular and disconnected from everyday realities.  Departments can emerge from this cave by shifting their hiring practices. An emphasis on public scholarship and outreach will increase public engagement while allowing humanities students to see their study as a enrichment of how they live their lives, rather than an alienating pursuit. Amherst has the unique platform as an elite liberal arts institution to promote this shift.

As the crisis becomes more visible, it’s time to ask ourselves: how do we protect the value of humanities at Amherst? As a well-endowed haven for the liberal arts, Amherst is perhaps among the last institutions that prioritizes the humanities in a shifting landscape of higher education. Even so, Amherst’s uniquely diverse student body and funding inequities mean that, apart from a privileged few, humanities students are being abandoned on a campus filled with glittering reminders of the humanities’ value — a value that is frustratingly out of reach.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 8; dissenting: 3; abstaining: 4).