Pauline Yu, president of American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), addressed the “State of the Humanities” in an April 20 lecture.  Her talk focused on the humanities’ decline in status as well as strategies to increase support for the humanities.

“Those in the humanities have a new commission, to place the humanities on the same level as engineering, et cetera,” she said.

Support for the humanities is dwindling, Yu claimed, pointing to cuts in federal spending and proposals to end the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  For instance, she said that President Obama seeks a funding increase of 13 percent for the National Science Foundation and an equal decrease in funding for the NEH.

Education is often reduced to work force preparation, leading the humanities to often be perceived as “superfluous.”

Yu urged her audience that the battle to promote the humanities is fought on a rhetorical, as well as a substantive, level.  Indeed, she quipped that her colleagues in the sciences have been apt students of literature in crafting their own arguments.

Yu said, “Science spokesman often focus on a narrative of past achievement that resonates with the audiences’ worldview.”  She cited MIT physicist Vannevar Bush’s report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt entitled “Science, The Endless Frontier.”  Comparing the role of scientists to that of pioneers, Bush spoke positively of post-war science and voiced a charter for encouraging scientific learning and research.

Another, more recent example of effective scientific rhetoric is evident in both the title and the content of the report “Rising above the Gathering Storm,” published in 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.

Those in the humanities, on the other hand, often employ metaphors that are vague or devoid in content.  For instance, in the 1980 Commission on the Humanities’ document, “The Humanities in American Life,” the humanities are compared to a doubloon nailed to the mast of Pequod in Moby Dick.  According to the authors, in this emblem each man reads his own meaning, reflecting the individual’s view of the world.  Yu criticized this open-ended comparison, arguing that such metaphors ought to be both more tailored to their audience and more specific in the action they recommend.

Yu highlighted three important factors in the development of the humanities: globalization, diversity, and digitization.

Yu used the term globalization, “a term as familiar as it is imprecise,” to apply to her discussion of international education. She drew upon a metaphor proposed by Yale sociologist Nancy Ruther, who compared higher education to “an aquifer, not a spigot.”  Universities cannot be built just to fill immediate needs but also with long-term goals in mind.  While international education cannot be built up instantly, Yu stated, “No understanding of global education can be understood without humanities.”

Yu further characterized the humanities as engaged in “a struggle against totalitarianism.”   She believes that educators must constantly focus on the individual’s importance.  Universities must be willing to undergo changes and enroll more diverse students, so that these students may directly help their native countries.

Finally, Yu believes that the humanities should be digitized.  Yu sees the New York Times’ series “Humanities 2.0” as a worthy attempt to point out the cooperation possible between humanities and sciences and “to make information understandable and applicable.”  From Yu’s perspective, this goal can only be achieved if the community views higher education as a public good.

Yu noted that just when Americans in general are emphasizing the humanities less, other countries are recognizing their importance.  For example, some Chinese educators are concerned that an emphasis on discipline may curtail their students’ creativity and are experimenting with more humanities-centered curricula.

Numerous questions followed Yu’s talk, one in particular focusing on the difficulties students face when discerning a major.  Yu said, “It is sadly all too easy to believe that a certain kind of education is the best way to spend our money – and that would be in workforce preparation.”  She claimed, however, that “many CEOs will quite happily attest that they would like to hire a philosophy major who knows how to deal with complex questions and teach them the business skills necessary.”

Madeline Gillen is a freshman resident of both Welsh Family Hall and the Snite Museum.  Contact her at