Academy Article

National Survey to Explore Public Perceptions of the Humanities


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded $275,000 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to survey the general public about the humanities. At a time when many in the field are seeking new ways to articulate the value of the humanities, this survey will provide a baseline for understanding the nature and extent of the public’s involvement in humanities-related activities and will shed light on how Americans think about the field. David Oxtoby, president of the Academy, observed that “The survey will provide a unique opportunity to explore the public’s perceptions of the humanities and provide essential perspective as the field looks toward the future. We are deeply grateful to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the opportunity.”

The origins of the survey extend back to the early 2000s, when the Academy first developed the Humanities Indicators. It quickly became apparent that the field’s desire to know about public perceptions of the humanities far exceeded the available data. Starting in 2017, with a planning grant from the Foundation, the Indicators staff initiated a fresh round of consultation with stakeholders across the humanities (including advocates, leaders in the public humanities and scholarly societies, as well as staff members from interested federal agencies) about what such a survey should encompass.

Drawing on the questions and concerns articulated at those meetings, Indicators staff developed and tested a survey instrument that explores: how Americans engage with the humanities in person and online; the extent of their early exposure to the humanities; the role of the humanities in their work lives; to what extent they value humanities education; and how they believe the humanities shapes individuals’ lives, civic life, and the nation’s economic fortunes.

In Fall 2019 the survey will be administered by NORC at the University of Chicago to 5,000 members of AmeriSpeak, a nationally representative, probability-based survey panel ( The questionnaire will be made available in both English and Spanish. Findings from the survey will be published in Fall 2020.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was one of the earliest and most consistent supporters of the Humanities Indicators, and, alongside the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been instrumental in the development of the project since 2003. Inquiries about this survey, or any other aspect of the Humanities Indicators, should be directed to Robert Townsend, co-director of the project, at





Humanities Indicators

Norman Marshall Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend