The Humanities in American Life


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Humanities Indicators

While the humanities are frequently associated with academia, proponents of its disciplines often argue that they play a vital role in the life of the American public—though the nature of that role and the public’s opinions about it have been something of a mystery. To explore these questions, in fall 2019 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project administered the first nationally representative survey on the subject, thanks to funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The survey asked 5,015 Americans, age 18 and above (in a sample drawn from NORC at the University of Chicago’s AmeriSpeak panel), about their engagement with a variety of humanistic activities in their daily lives and work, as well as their attitudes toward the field. (See Appendix B for a description of the study’s methodology.)

The results may surprise many in the field, as the survey revealed considerable agreement about the personal and societal benefits of the humanities, substantial engagement with a variety of humanities activities at home and in the workplace, and strong support for teaching humanities subjects in the schools. The survey also found that relatively few Americans agree with a variety of negative statements about the field.

At the same time, the development process and some of the findings demonstrated the potential challenges for the field when it comes to the humanities as an umbrella concept, as a nonnegligible share of Americans has a rather different conception of the term humanities. The public also has a more favorable view of many of the constituent disciplines (particularly history, literature, and languages) than the humanities as a category. And even if a large majority of Americans disagree with some of the more extreme caricatures of the humanities (such as the proposition that they “undermine the values of my community”), the survey did turn up a high level of agreement with the statement that the field “tends to attract people who are elitist or pretentious.”



What Are the Humanities?

For the purposes of this study, the term humanities encompassed more than the academic disciplines associated with the field. The term also includes 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 and technical reading on the job.

Early exploratory work for the survey proved instructive, as it suggested the substantial presence of such activities and skills in the everyday lives of Americans, but also that Americans have strikingly diverse conceptions of the humanities, many of which are at odds with those embraced by insiders in the humanities community.

As part of the survey development process, 175 American adults were polled about their understanding of the term humanities. A considerable share connected the term to activities and notions that have little connection to the field (ranging from “giving blood” to an observation that “science is about humans, right?”). Perhaps most prominent of all, respondents connected the humanities to the fine and performing arts, as shown in a word cloud of the responses (below).

Public Conceptions of the Humanities

Word cloud showing responses to open question about the definition of "humanities."

Source: Poll of 175 American adults using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (conducted by Indicators staff).

Based on these findings, the survey was structured to ask first 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 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.



Why Ask about the Humanities?

Even though—as this study indicates—millions of Americans engage in aspects of the humanities every day, participation in humanities activities has been strikingly understudied. While there have been dozens of studies about the fine and performing arts, decades of federally funded research about American attitudes to the sciences, and one large national study about public engagement with history, no national survey has been dedicated solely to the humanities as a field. While some arts surveys, most notably the National Endowment of the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, have yielded valuable information about certain aspects of the humanities as they are practiced by Americans (particularly in the area of reading), Indicators staff could find only one national survey (conducted in the early 1990s) that asked even a single question about Americans’ perception of the humanities.1

As a result, scholars in the field and leaders in the public humanities could only speculate, based on anecdotal evidence, about what the public thinks of their work. In light of downward trends in humanities majors and departmental funding on many campuses, many fear the worst. This has now been tested empirically, and the data suggest that the troubles in academia are not a symptom of widespread antipathy toward the field. But the survey does indicate that some groups of Americans are more engaged with and enthusiastic about the humanities than others. Hopefully, the study’s findings will be of use to the field in assessing—and perhaps addressing—these disparities.




  • 1Research and Forecasts, Inc., The Importance of the Arts and Humanities in American Society: A Nationwide Survey of American Public Commissioned by the National Cultural Alliance (Washington, DC: National Cultural Alliance, 1993).

The Content of This Report

The study’s findings are presented in four parts:

  1. Dimensions of the Humanities in Everyday Life (exploring American engagement in a variety of humanities activities);
  2. How Americans View the Humanities (exploring broad views about the humanities);
  3. The Humanities and Childhood (exploring childhood engagement with the humanities, views about the teaching of humanities subjects to children, and the subjects Americans wished they had studied more of in school); and
  4. Humanities in the Workplace (exploring the extent to which Americans use humanities skills at work and whether their inability to perform humanities-related tasks has proven a barrier to their career advancement).

Each part includes an analysis of differences in engagement or attitudes among demographic groups. As with any first-of-its-kind study, the findings presented here tend to raise as many questions as they answer. Hopefully, they will spur additional research. Please feel free to contact the Indicators staff at to share any thoughts you might have, or ask for additional details.



A Guide to Interpreting the Survey Findings

The means and proportions included in this report are based on a sample of Americans, weighted to produce estimates for the US adult population as a whole. (See Appendix B for a description of the survey methodology.) The reported values are estimates and thus have a measure of error (also an estimate) associated with them, which is indicated by the inclusion of the word estimated in graph and table titles.

Two types of difference are noted in the report. The first type of difference is between a particular demographic group (e.g., 18-to-29-year-olds) and the entire adult population. These differences are highlighted in the tables. The second type of difference is that between demographic groups (e.g., between 18-to-29-year-olds and Americans age 60 and above). These are discussed in the report narrative.

By virtue of the error associated with each estimate (either for the entire adult population or a particular demographic group), observed differences between them may be due to the sample that happened to be drawn for this survey rather than a difference between the actual values in the adult population, which could be known only if a census were conducted. For this reason, only differences between estimates that were found to be statistically significant at the 5% level are noted in the report.

Statistical significance gauges the reliability of an observed difference between two estimates. It indicates how certain one can be that the difference between the two values could actually be found in the adult population and is not due to chance (i.e., not due to the particular sample of adults that was surveyed as part of the study). If a difference between two groups (e.g., Asian and White Americans, or Asian Americans and the entire adult population) is significant at the 5% level, it means that if there really were really no difference between two groups, the difference observed in the study sample would be this big or bigger only 5% of the time.