The Humanities in American Life

Executive Summary

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Humanities Indicators

In fall 2019 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project, with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered the first nationally representative survey dedicated to understanding Americans’ engagement with and attitudes toward the humanities. The survey asked 5,015 American adults, age 18 and above (in a sample drawn from NORC at the University of Chicago’s AmeriSpeak panel) about their engagement in a variety of humanistic activities, as well as their beliefs about the personal, societal, and economic benefits of the humanities.

For the purposes of this study, the term humanities encompassed more than the academic disciplines associated with the field. The survey included questions about a wide array of activities in which Americans engage as part of their personal and work lives, such as: early childhood reading; K–12 and higher education in humanities subjects; later-in-life engagement with the humanities through books, the internet, television, and cultural institutions; and descriptive writing on the job.

Exploratory work revealed that the public had diverse conceptions of the term humanities. To overcome this lack of a common understanding, the survey first asked about the what and where of humanities activities (such as reading at home, thinking about an ethical choice, or visiting a history museum) without employing the term humanities. The term was then concretized for respondents by pointing them back to the earlier practices and also providing a definition rooted in some of the field’s better-known disciplines (“studying or participating in activities related to literature, languages, history, and philosophy”). Only then were respondents asked about their opinions of the field.

The survey revealed that a substantial majority of Americans believes the humanities confer personal, societal, and economic benefits. The study also found considerable engagement in a range of humanities activities at home and in the workplace, as well as strong support for teaching humanities subjects in the schools. The survey also found relatively little agreement with a variety of negative statements about the field, such as “cost[s] too much” or is “a waste of time.”

The survey offers four broad insights:

  • There is substantial engagement with the humanities in American life. However, very few people engage regularly in the full range of activities, or even in all the activities associated with a given discipline (e.g., someone who watches history shows is not very likely to also research history topics online).
  • Though Americans hold a generally favorable view of the humanities, especially as an area of education, their enthusiasm is relatively attenuated in comparison to other intellectual fields and even to some of the humanities’ component disciplines (especially history).
  • Many Americans do not recall being exposed to the humanities by their parents, and most adults wished they had taken more humanities courses in school.
  • And finally, a substantial share of Americans has been hampered at work due to a deficiency in one or more humanities skills, though the survey also reveals that many Americans do not think they need humanities skills in the workplace.

The results of the study enlarge the framework for thinking about the meaning of the public humanities, suggesting where and how the public engages with the humanities in their lives, what views they actually hold about the field, where and when they believe the humanities should be taught to young people, and finally, how Americans use humanities skills in the workplace, a topic that looms ever-larger in conversations about humanities majors and the future of the field.