What Americans Think About the Humanities

Click to view the report on another site

On Monday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a 100-page report called “The Humanities in American Life.” It comprises the results from a national survey administered last November. The researchers asked more than 5,000 respondents about their engagement in “humanistic activities” and their attitudes toward humanities education.

On the whole, the report’s findings should encourage most humanities workers, including social studies teachers and historians. But careful examination of the details may be especially useful. This report identifies important discrepancies or tensions in public attitudes.

Champions of humanities education should be prepared to expose or remedy—or exploit—these tensions. There are both dangers and opportunities here.

History in Everyday Life and Among Other Disciplines

Historical television—fiction or nonfiction—was the dominant way Americans experienced the humanities in 2019.

When the researchers asked Americans about their participation in a variety of humanities activities, history led the way. In the previous year, 83% of Americans had watched shows with historical content at least “sometimes” (19% said “very often”; only 5% said “never”). Thus, historical television—fiction or nonfiction—was the dominant way Americans experienced the humanities. Close behind television was looking up history online, which 69% had done at least sometimes and a third had done often or very often in the previous year.

For better or worse, more Americans sometimes participated in these two activities than in reading fiction or nonfiction books on any subject, or in listening to podcasts on humanities subjects.

History also dominated the humanities activities that involved leaving home. (Remember leaving home to do activities?) Forty-seven percent of Americans had visited history museums or historic sites at least sometimes in the previous year, compared with 40% who said the same about art museums or art events, 16% about poetry events, and only 12% who had sometimes attended literary reading groups. Even engaging in the study of religious texts, which may be part of regular religious services or schooling, had lower participation, with 37% taking part at least sometimes, either individually or collectively.

It is unsurprising, then, considering its place in everyday culture, that Americans also held a more positive opinion of history than of other humanities disciplines. Nine out of ten Americans (89%) had a favorable or very favorable view of history—comparable with science (90%), engineering (85%), and math (84%), and better than foreign languages (80%), arts (80%), and philosophy (77%). Almost half of Americans (48%) said their opinion of history was very favorable, a rating exceeded by only science (52%).

(Also significantly, history had higher favorability than other humanities disciplines among Americans with lower incomes, among Americans with lower educational attainment, and among American men.)

In light of these observations, people interested in the health of the humanities should think carefully about two questions. First, how can we make use of historical entertainment and Internet culture to stimulate interest in other humanities activities, including on-site and social activities related to history?

Second, how can we make use of historical entertainment and Internet culture to stimulate interest in humanities fields besides history, including art, poetry, philosophy, cultural studies, and religious studies? Both of these questions are about making use of what the vast majority of American adults say they are already doing with their time.

Primary and Secondary Education

There is a disconnect between what Americans recognize as effects of humanities education and what they support as forms of humanities education.

Overall, support for basic humanities education in America seems to be strong. Nearly all Americans (94%) agreed that the humanities “should be an important part of every American’s education,” and most (56%) strongly agreed. Conversely, 85% disagreed with the claim that the humanities “are a waste of time.” That’s unmixed good news.

There was less agreement about why humanities education is important. However, large majorities agreed with most statements the researchers proposed for the humanities’ uses, including, at the high end, statements about understanding and appreciating diversity (which drew 91% and 90% agreement) and, at the low end, the claim that the humanities “make the economy stronger” (which had only 73% agreement).

Interestingly, though, this set of findings may sit uneasily alongside the findings about specific disciplines. If I’m right, this report sounds a warning and shows us an opportunity.

As I see it, the humanities subjects that Americans were most likely to call important parts of children’s education, reading (95%) and writing (94%), are the ones most obviously relevant to basic employability and effectiveness at work. Subjects that are specifically related to less tangible but more recognized outcomes—like appreciating cultural diversity, spending quality time with friends and family, and strengthening democracy—were less likely to be valued by respondents.

That is, only 85% said teaching American history in schools is important; only 80% said the same for literature or world history and culture; 63% said the same for foreign languages; 58% said it for religious differences; and 50% said it for art appreciation.

In addition, about one third of Americans said that humanities instruction beyond reading and writing should start only after elementary school. For the least popular subjects, half or more said that. (Also noteworthy, though unsurprising, is that nearly a third believed differences in religious thought should be taught only outside of school.)

Thus, for the public as a whole, there seems to be a disconnect between what Americans say they recognize as effects of humanities education and what they actually support as forms of humanities education. It’s not a huge discrepancy in terms of numbers, but it’s a fundamental one as a matter of philosophy and educational strategy. This discrepancy warrants serious thought from educators and political leaders.

To state the matter simply: How can we strengthen the connection in the American public mind between the diversity of humanities disciplines and the desirable outcomes that Americans already recognize as the humanities’ fruits?

And to dig deeper into the problem: How can we challenge the belief that outcomes like understanding cultural diversity and strengthening democracy are less legitimate aims for children’s education than promoting employability is? That unstated assumption is surely responsible for some of the disconnect evident in this report.

Politics

Across the board, liberals support the humanities more than conservatives do—except for American history.

Two sets of findings about the relationship between political views and support for the humanities are not surprising. First, across the board, self-identified liberals in America supported the humanities more strongly than conservatives did. Second, there is one major exception to that rule. Conservatives said they value history, especially U.S. history, about as much as liberals do, and perhaps even more.

Based on the responses they received to their range of questions, the researchers categorized 51% of American self-described liberals, but only 24% of conservatives, as “fans” of the humanities. Conversely, they categorized only 21% of liberals, but 39% of conservatives, as “skeptics” of the humanities. Liberals (28%) were also less likely than conservatives (37%) to be classified as “neutrals.” (Unsurprisingly, moderates fell somewhere in the middle on all counts.)

Looking more closely, the researchers also found similar gaps between liberals’ and conservatives’ views on the educational benefits, the personal benefits, and the social and economic benefits of the humanities. Overall, liberals (50%) were more than twice as likely as conservatives (20%) to express a very favorable view of the humanities.

However, when it came to history—and history alone, among humanities disciplines—self-identified conservatives (54%) were as likely as liberals (55%) to have a very favorable impression:

Indeed, conservatives (92%) were actually more likely than liberals (84%) to say that teaching American history to children is very important. Conservatives (44%) were also more likely than liberals (30%) to say they wished they had taken more courses in American history when they were in school. (For every other humanities subject named in the survey, these relationships were reversed, except that conservatives and liberals were equally likely, at 39%, to wish they had taken more courses in world history.)

This has obvious implications for humanities workers who need to overcome political resistance to humanities education. Conservative interest in history may be usable as a tool to reduce resistance to the humanities in general.

However, there is an obvious difficulty to overcome when making any such plans: History itself is politically fraught, perhaps more (or at least more obviously) than other subjects are.

The report includes a more obscure, but quite fascinating, finding about politics: Young Americans (27% of age 18-29) were twice as likely to say that humanities study “undermines the values of my community” as old Americans (14% of age 60+) were. This seems consistent with other answers that clearly show support for the humanities rising with age. But it may challenge common stereotypes about the nature of cultural conservatism in America.

In other words, it may be primarily young conservatives, not old conservatives, who tend to view humanities study as dangerous to traditional values. That’s very interesting. (Of course, these responses probably also include some young liberals who think undermining their community’s values is a good thing, so we should be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions.)

Final Thoughts

These findings have obvious relevance to our apparently endless debates about liberal bias in U.S. education. As always, different interpretations are possible. However, low conservative support for the humanities seems consistent with arguments I have made in the past.

Specifically, this report seems to confirm that American conservative students are likely to arrive in college with relatively negative views about the humanities (and relatively positive views about STEM education).

That may help explain why conservative students receive slightly lower overall grades in college (both relative to liberals’ and relative to their own grades in high school) despite—otherwise strangely—reporting positive experiences with all their college courses. It could also help explain why Democrats are much more likely to become college professors than Republicans are, even in disciplines—again, otherwise strangely—where their political views are unlikely to be visible to potential employers at all, since people with a high affinity for the humanities may be more likely to pursue or obtain an academic career regardless of field.

This new report is hardly proof of such causation, and it could be given a very different interpretation. But it seems consistent with the arguments I have already made on this site.

Obviously, a report this comprehensive includes many findings I have not discussed, including information more relevant to people teaching other subjects, including art, languages, literature and reading, philosophy, and religious studies. Also, you may disagree with my interpretation of the findings I have included here. So I recommend that educators and scholars examine the report for themselves.

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