Winter 2009

Where the humanities live

Edward Ayers

Edward L. Ayers, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2001, is president of the University of Richmond. His books include “In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863” (2003), winner of the Bancroft Prize, and “The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction,” (1992), a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1964, the historian J. H. Plumb announced a crisis in the humanities: “Alas, the rising tide of scientific and industrial societies, combined with the battering of two World Wars, has shattered the confidence of humanists in their capacity to lead or to instruct.”1 Plumb’s lament would not be the last; indeed, in every decade since 1964, in addresses to professional organizations and in op-ed pieces, on blogs and in commencement speeches, humanists and their critics have warned of one crisis after another. Sometimes challengers from outside–scientists, social scientists, administrators, politicians, or advocates of corporate or utilitarian values–threaten. At other times, humanists themselves come off as the culprits, trafficking in obscurity, reaction, or political correctness. Whatever the cause, those who worry have no trouble finding signs of crisis: declining proportions of students and faculty positions, low funding inside the university, a diminished audience beyond the academy, disorienting shifts in the demography of students and faculty, and dislocating theoretical importations and innovations.2

Surprisingly, however, today the humanities in the United States are holding their own in an intensely competitive jostling of universities, departments, and faculty for students and resources. As the Humanities Indicators Prototype sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reveals, humanities disciplines show signs of regained balance, integration, and growth, even if other fields, often vocational, are growing faster. Humanities faculty and what they teach retain authority and respect in public and private institutions, large and small. Many thoughtful and articulate students in the best schools in the country emerge with degrees in the humanities. Faculty and students from around the world come to the United States to share in its broad and robust tradition of humanistic research and teaching.3

To understand why the tradition of crisis shapes our thinking and self-perception, even while some of the reasons for worry have abated, we need to understand the many contexts in which the humanities live. They live in departments and disciplines, of course; but they also live in new places, in new forms, and in new combinations.

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  • 1 J. H. Plumb, ed., Crisis in the Humanities (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964). The humanities are generally considered to include English language and literature; foreign languages and literatures; history; philosophy; religion; ethnic, gender, and cultural studies; area and interdisciplinary studies; archaeology; art history; the history of music; and the study of drama and cinema. Some parts of political science, government, geography, anthropology, and sociology–the “humanistic social sciences”–are more closely identified with the humanities than with other more quantitative aspects of the disciplines.
  • 2A special issue of New Literary History, 36 (2005), built around responses to Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s essay “Beneath and Beyond the ‘Crisis in the Humanities,’” is extremely helpful. Harpham analyzes the perennial nature of the crisis.
  • 3The Humanities Indicators Prototype is sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and can be found at http:// In 2004, about 16 percent of humanities doctorates in this country went to students from abroad. For a useful perspective, see Steven Brint, “The Rise of the ‘Practical Arts,’” in The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, ed. Brint (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 231–259.
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