The Decline of the Humanities?

Rob Page

Simplicius, Philoponus, and the Red Queen

It started with Fellows Colloquium. I was sitting listening to yet another hour-long talk about Aristotle, read, without visual aids. One where, again, the talk began in the middle of a question without any background or explanation (at least not understandable to a biologist) as to why it was an important question or why anyone other than Aristotle scholars should care. When the obligatory question session opened, I asked my question, "Why were neoplatonists in the middle ages studying Aristotle?" I followed up with, "And why are you studying them?" I was serious but my question opened up a chasm showing huge differences between the humanities and sciences (I am a biologist) with respect to how we ask, investigate, and present the research findings of the questions of our disciplines. Subsequent comments increasingly pointed out that one shouldn't question knowledge. Knowledge for its own sake stands unchallenged. The discussion ended with someone standing up and saying something to the effect of "if we question such things we should just cut off our heads", I think he specifically meant mine

Of course this wasn't what I expected, in science we always begin our talks giving the background for a question and pointing out why it is important. We constantly defend our questions when we write grants attempting to get funds to support our research. Subsequently a group of social science fellows, who became and continue to be good friends, organized an evening event to discuss the differences in our methods, how we go about testing our ideas, and even how to use PowerPoint in a talk. Subsequent colloquia often began with "For Rob's benefit I have a couple of slides", and "this is an important question because...." In some sense I made an impact.

The Great Recession and the Decline of Humanities

I was in the Wiko class of 2009-2010, this was the dark age of the Great Recession. The general perception was that the humanities were being disproportionately negatively affected. In June 2013, I attended an annual conference of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. I was invited to participate in a Round Table Discussion with other former Humboldt Research Prize Winners. The discussion was supposed to be about our Humboldt experiences and the development of Humboldt sponsorship programs in our home countries. The discussion quickly devolved into a litany of testimonials about the decline of the humanities in universities. At this time I was the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science at ASU and I was struggling at the intersection of the "hard" sciences, social sciences, and humanities. I had been through major funding cuts making decisions on what to support and what to cut. When my turn came, I asked them why they were so negative. Many of them were from major universities of high prestige . Do you still have a tenured job guaranteed for life? Answer yes. Did you get pay cuts? Answer no. Do you still have graduate students, go to meetings around the world, get recognition from your peers? Answer yes, yes, and yes. But their chorus reminded me of the song by Warren Zevon, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me". Click on this link and hear the version sung by Linda Ronstadt,

Was the decline real?

Were the woeful stories justified? ASU the largest public university in the U.S. and probably represents the trends that have taken place at many or most universities. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is the largest college at ASU and represents the humanities (HUM), social sciences (SS), and the natural, physical sciences, and mathematics (PHY). So, lets take a look at trends from before the recession until now. And lets also compare them with the schools of engineering at ASU (see table below).

Year200620072008200920102011201220132014Percent change 06-14

TT Faculty FTE1/


Student FTE Delivered


Student FTE/Faculty FTE


1/TT Faculty FTE is the number of tenured faculty full time equivalents in the humanities (HUM), social sciences (SS), life sciences (LS), physical sciences including math (PHY), and engineering (ENG). Student FTE delivered is the number of student full time equivalents taking courses from all faculty, tenure track and contract. Student FTE/Faculty FTE is the number of student full time equivalents per faculty FTE, including all faculty TT and contract.

First of all, like so often happens in science, my initial assumptions were wrong. I expected a decline in student enrollment, and faculty in the humanities, and an increase in student to faculty ratios due to a steeper decline in faculty than in students. This is what I had been told repeatedly was happening. Instead, the humanities faculty FTE increased, student numbers decreased and the student to faculty ratios decreased nearly 30%. The overall large increase in student numbers in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) was expected, but I was surprised by the extent to which we had failed to keep up with hiring faculty in those areas resulting in significant increases in teaching workloads. Teaching workloads in these disciplines are typically half those of the social sciences and humanities due to the research expectations placed on the faculty.

To answer the question: are the humanities declining at ASU, I would say no and yes. The faculty has not declined, in fact they are significantly overrepresented relative to the students and the rest of the university. Student numbers in the humanities have fallen far behind relative to the STEM disciplines and one might argue there are currently too many humanities faculty. Keep in mind that the student population at ASU has grown significantly during this time.

Are there Clear and Present Dangers?

The alarm is sounding from many quarters of Academe, suggesting that all is not right with the current perception of the value of the humanities. In 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a study titled "The Heart of the Matter" ( , an attempt to show that the humanities have central importance to democracy, the economy, and leadership in a globalized world. Few questioned the relevance of an education in the humanities, until now. Within the last few years there was also an attempt to eliminate the social sciences from the funding budget of the National Science Foundation in the US (see page 53, The academic community rallied to defend their existence, the funding was not cut. Natural and physical sciences are better at defending their relevance by showing the shift of students from the humanities to STEM disciplines, competing for grants that build university infrastructure, and by showing direct connections between their research and solving world problems. The social sciences also succeed better than the humanities. But the humanists (I know I am binning them all together and that isn't fair) remain in their silos daring others to question their relevance as the students and faculty drain away.

Last academic year the Board of Regents that oversees the three public universities in Arizona asked THE question. Why do we continue to give degrees in the liberal arts? (The liberal arts are often misrepresented as being only the social sciences and humanities, they were focused on the humanities.) This came soon after I assumed my new position as University Provost of ASU. The three provosts of the three public universities, including me, felt passionate about defending the importance of the humanities and prepared a defense. Keep in mind that none of us are humanists, the three of us are from the natural and physical sciences. A summary of the report can be found at: Affairs Agenda Books/2014-04-02 Minutes.pdf . The take home message is that the value of a liberal arts education is being discussed in major academic venues, congressional committees in the US that oversee public funded research, and in meetings of university governing boards that determine the directions of our public universities.

I think there are other indicators of clear and present danger to the humanities. The shift of students into professional schools reflects the rising opinion that an education prepares students for the workforce, rather than prepares them for a productive and meaningful life.

Another danger is the streamlining of the curriculum. Professional undergraduate programs like engineering already have cut the liberal part of the liberal arts general studies down to a minimum by increasing the number of required major subject courses. (I use "liberal" in the context of students having a liberal assortment of elective courses available to explore.) This has been due to the push by universities to deliver "lean" programs where all students take only the minimum number of credits (courses) required for graduation. This keeps the price per degree low, an important metric for governing boards and state legislators overseeing public universities. So, in general, course enrollments in the humanities and social sciences are reduced. But also in part because faculty outside of the humanities have lost their understanding of the value of a liberal education and think students are wasting time that could otherwise be spent taking more math, science, or professional subjects.

What now?

Going back to the discussions following the fellow's colloquium mentioned above, I felt that my humanist friends and colleagues were unprepared to explain why what they do is relevant. Not that they couldn't construct a believable argument, but that they didn't think they should have to. It sufficed to say knowledge for the sake of knowledge is enough. That was good in the past but we are now in the age of hyper-accountability. To survive and grow, the humanists need a coherent argument based on a return on investment. In my opinion that argument must look beyond the financial rewards of a degree and show how the return on liberal arts education is measured by the life story of those we educate. It should be easy.