Academy Article
Fall 2020

Home with the Humanities: American Engagement during the Pandemic


Compelled to remain at home by the pandemic, millions of Americans actively engaged with the humanities, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The nationally representative survey of 1,000 adults in May 2020 found that during the stay-at-home restrictions Americans engaged in an average of five humanities activities at least sometimes.[1]


Other key findings:

  • History: Watching shows with historical content was the most popular activity by a wide margin, with over 70 percent of American adults watching these shows at least sometimes, and approximately a quarter watching very often. The second most-commonly engaged in activity was also history-related. The survey found that 55 percent of Americans spent at least some time researching a history subject of interest (via the Internet or other means).
  • Reading: More than half of Americans read fiction books sometimes or more often during the lockdown, although almost one-third did not read fiction at all. A somewhat smaller share (47 percent) read nonfiction at least occasionally, with 28 percent of adults doing so often or very often.
  • Watching shows with other humanities content: While history shows were the most popular, 49 percent of Americans spent at least some time watching shows with other humanities content (such as art, literature, philosophy, culture, or world religions).
  • Online research and sharing: Forty-six percent of Americans used the Internet to look up information about humanities topics sometimes or more often, while almost as many (43 percent) shared digital humanities content with others.
  • Bringing the performing arts home: Though attending live performances was not an option for most Americans, 46 percent watched a music or theater performance online or on television at least sometimes. Approximately one-quarter of Americans viewed the performances often or very often.
  • Visiting humanities institutions virtually: A markedly smaller share, 27 percent, visited the websites of museums, historic sites, or other cultural institutions at least sometimes to take a virtual tour or explore their collections. Just 12 percent of Americans did so often or very often.
  • Ethics: In view of the myriad ethical issues raised by the pandemic, the survey asked Americans if they thought about or researched the ethical aspects of a choice in their life. Thirty-eight percent of Americans reported engaging in such reflection at least sometimes.

This survey was a follow-up to a much larger national survey about public engagement with and attitudes toward the humanities that was conducted in fall 2019 (with responses from 5,015 Americans). That study, which will be published in November, provides more detailed information about who engages in these activities—and how often; how Americans feel about the humanities; how they experienced the humanities as children; and the role the humanities play in Americans’ work lives. 

About the Survey

The poll of 1,056 adults was conducted on May 14–18, 2020, using a sample drawn from NORC at the University of Chicago’s probability-based AmeriSpeak® Panel, which is designed to be representative of the US population. The margin of sampling error for each of the findings described here is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

[1] Given the differences among localities with respect to the timing and duration of the stay-at-home orders starting in March 2020, the survey asked, “How often did you engage in the following activities since pandemic-related stay-at-home restrictions were put in place?”

Explore statistical information about the Humanities in public life.



Humanities Indicators

Norman Marshall Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend