The Humanities in American Life


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Humanities Indicators

After working with the humanities community for almost twenty years, we recognize that a broader definition of the field—one that situates the humanities in the day-to-day experiences of most Americans—will not sit comfortably with all stakeholders. While many in the public humanities have embraced the expansive definition used in this survey (and more generally by the Humanities Indicators), many scholars have chafed at what they consider an overly broad conception of the field. Some have even advised us that they perceive our definition as undermining the integrity of the humanities, observing that the definition of the field can work only within the boundaries of the academy. Clearly, we have strayed from that perspective by asking the questions we have.

As this report demonstrates, if the humanities are broadly conceived—as a set of humanistic practices and skills that may connect to academic study of humanities subjects but often are not necessarily part of the academy—you will find considerable engagement with and support for the field in the general public. No matter where you look in the data, you will find some members of every demographic group actively engaged with the humanities and strongly supportive of the field. Of course, the reverse is also true, as substantial shares of Americans in every demographic category do not engage in most humanities activities and are (at best) ambivalent about the field.

Broadly speaking, the survey offers four important takeaways for further consideration:

  • 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 divide between the academic and public humanities seems particularly relevant because so many of the current conversations about the future of the field are situated within the academic humanities, either in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed or in blogs and editorials written by students and scholars for a more general audience.28 Most of this commentary perceives that public attitudes about the humanities play a critical role in the health of the field, be it in the form of parents dissuading their children from majoring in the humanities, members of the public not reading books by humanities scholars, or administrators and funders shifting funds to other fields.

Nevertheless, we hope that the insights from this report will be useful both for the stakeholders in the field and researchers interested in the humanities and culture. Taking a narrow view of the humanities confines the conversation to an academic echo chamber in which the trend in the number of majors and funding levels for departments serves as a proxy for public engagement and support. This limits the conversation to a self-referential discussion that will do little to advance public understanding about the humanities or open the frame to a larger set of possible solutions to the challenges facing many departments. The data presented here expand the framework for thinking about these questions, suggesting where and how the public engages with the humanities in their lives, what views they actually hold about the field, which subjects remain of interest later into adulthood, and finally, how humanities skills actually play a role in a workplace that seems to loom ever larger in conversations about selecting college majors.

While we hope that these findings will inform, illuminate, and broaden conversations about the field, we also recognize that this study and the findings presented here raise as many questions as they answer. The goal was to establish the “what” of the humanities in Americans’ daily lives. Understanding the “why” behind the patterns discerned by this study will require further research in a variety of modes, as survey-based investigations need to be supplemented by rigorous qualitative research to understand the drivers of the behaviors and attitudes described here. Nevertheless, the findings from this survey demonstrate that a more expansive understanding of the humanities can offer a rich and profitable area for further research and that this report can serve as the start of a new—and perhaps long-overdue—sociology of the humanities.


  • 28This conversation is only a small part of the conversation about the humanities and humanities subjects. A forthcoming report from the What Everyone Says about the Humanities (WE1S) project, which analyzed an extensive corpus of comments about the humanities in both traditional and social media, notes that academic discourse about the crisis in majors, programs, and funding is largely absent from the larger public discourse about the field. See their Key Findings page at