Last month the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Humanities in American life: Insights from a Survey of the Public’s Attitudes and Engagement. This work was undertaken by the Academy’s Humanities Indicators Project, which provides data on the humanities in the United States, “providing researchers and policy-makers in the private and public sectors with better tools to answer basic questions about areas of concern in the humanities.” The new report, which describes the humanities capaciously and beyond the academic disciplines and also includes the survey instrument, highlights how Americans understand and value the humanities. It is a parallel effort to the Academy’s project on The Public Face of Science, which issued reports beginning in 2018 with Perceptions of Science in America.
I spoke with Robert Townsend, Codirector of Humanities Indicators and the Academy’s Interim Director for Humanities, Arts, and Culture Programs about The Humanities in American Life survey findings and implications. Our interview has been edited.
Could you tell us about the Academy’s Humanities Indicators Project?
The Humanities Indicators goes back about 20 years. The National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators were already well-positioned to provide the sort of data about the sort of challenges they were facing. And so the Academy developed the Humanities Indicators as a counterpart to that, really, to answer many of the same questions and to provide similar data about the health of the humanities. There is higher education as well as K-12 data, and information about public sites like museums. Norman Bradburn, who’s my co-PI on the project, is sort of the creator of the Indicators. He’s a former provost from the University of Chicago and a sociologist who has been doing survey research for decades — he literally wrote the book on how to ask survey questions.
I use your data all the time! Mostly I’m looking for information about history and historians, but do you have a sense of what most people look to Humanities Indicators for?
I was just looking at the data yesterday on our web traffic, and the most popular pages are related to race and gender of people who are earning degrees in the humanities, and reading and museum attendance. Some of the K-12 data, like the trends in qualifications of teachers, and in student test-taking — those sorts of things are always popular as well.
Tell us about this particular survey and report, funded by the Mellon Foundation. What are some of the big surprises?
From the beginning, the Indicators wanted to take an expansive approach to the humanities, trying not to think of it in terms of academic disciplines, but as a continuum from early childhood reading through college and a university education, which is, I think where most people will tend to think of it as existing, and then into more general public forms, such as museums. And so when we developed a survey, we continued that very expansive approach.
In the development of the survey, we realized that we basically couldn’t ask about the humanities directly so we ask most of the questions without ever using the word “humanities” until the very end. And then we sort of point back to the things that we just talked about and say, “so what we just talked about, people often put under the umbrella of the humanities.”
Mellon’s support was critical, because to survey 5,000 people is actually quite a generous undertaking. But it proved to be really valuable because there are so many people engaging with the humanities, and also so much diversity in how these people engage with the humanities. There are so many key points of near-unity, but a lot of diversity that’s worth looking at more closely. . . .