By GARY GUTTING
NY Times Published: November 30, 2013
“Crisis” and “decline” are the words of the day in discussions of the humanities. A primary stimulus for the concern is a startling factoid: only 8 percent of undergraduates major in humanities. But this figure is misleading. It does not include majors in closely related fields such as history, journalism and some of the social sciences. Nor does it take account of the many required and elective humanities courses students take outside their majors. Most important, the 8 percent includes only those with a serious academic interest in literature, music and art, not those devoted to producing the artistic works that humanists study.
Once we recognize that deeply caring about the humanities (including the arts) does not require majoring in philosophy, English or foreign languages, it’s not at all obvious that there is a crisis of interest in the humanities, at least in our universities.
Is the crisis rather one of harsh economic reality? Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.
But this data does not show that business majors earn more because they majored in business. Business majors may well be more interested in earning money and so accept jobs that pay well even if they are not otherwise fulfilling, whereas people interested in the humanities and the arts may be willing to take more fulfilling but lower-paying jobs. College professors, for example, often know that they could have made far more if they had gone to law school or gotten an M.B.A., but are willing to accept significantly lower pay to teach a subject they love.
This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.
Or rather, it has a great deal to offer but only for a privileged elite (the cultural parallel to our economic upper class) who have had the ability and luck to reach the highest levels of humanistic achievement. If you have (in Pierre Bourdieu’s useful term) the “cultural capital” to gain a tenured professorship at a university, play regularly in a major symphony orchestra or write mega best sellers, you can earn an excellent living doing what you love. Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side.
Teaching should be an obvious solution for many humanities majors. But secure and well-paying tenure-track jobs are disappearing, with at least half of college teachers now part-time adjuncts, many of whom, even when they combine several academic jobs, fail to make a living wage. As for non-college teaching, the sad state of so many of our K-12 schools — with their unprepared and undisciplined students, overcrowding, lack of funding and obtuse, test-obsessed bureaucracies — make teaching there a path to frustration and burnout.
The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partner whose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.
We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class, which finds it harder and harder to find good jobs, as wealth shifts to the upper class. But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work. I’d like to offer some specific suggestions for improving the situation.
We could open up a large number of fulfilling jobs for humanists if (as I’ve previously suggested) we developed an elite, professional faculty in our K-12 schools. Provide good salaries and good working conditions, and many humanists would find teaching immensely rewarding. Meeting the needs of this part of the cultural middle class could, in fact, be the key to saving our schools. At the same time, colleges should rethink their dependence on adjuncts, who often differ from regular faculty members more in their poor pay and work conditions than in academic quality. If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.
Fair treatment for writers and artists is an even more difficult matter, which will ultimately require a major change in how we think about support for the arts. Fortunately, however, we already have an excellent model, in our support of athletics. Despite our general preference for capitalism, our support for sports is essentially socialist, with local and state governments providing enormous support for professional teams. To cite just one striking example, the Minnesota State Legislature recently appropriated over $500 million to help build the Vikings a new stadium. At the same time, the Minnesota Orchestra is close to financial disaster because it can’t erase a $6 million deficit. If the Legislature had diverted only 10 percent of its support for football, it would have covered that deficit for the next eight years.
Over all, taxpayer money provides more than a billion dollars annually in tax exemptions and stadium subsidies for N.F.L. teams. (See Gregg Easterbrook’s recent article in The Atlantic and his book “The King of Sports” for much more on this topic.) Other sports also receive generous support. Even major universities subsidize professional sports through their (mostly money-losing) athletic programs, which provide a continuing influx of professional players. Universities could reduce their efforts to field teams playing at near-professional levels and direct the money saved to artistic activities much closer to their core mission. The federal government could make a significant contribution simply by making sure that writers and artists have good affordable health insurance.
These may seem utopian suggestions, but without drastic actions, we will continue ignoring the needs of our cultural middle class. That’s the real crisis in the humanities.