The number of undergraduate majors in the humanities across the United States has been in steep decline since the 2007-8 financial crisis. The losses — drops of 50 percent or more in many departments, average drops of 25 to 30 percent from a peak across all disciplines — dwarf the broader but less steep declines in enrollment across higher education.

The causes of the precipitous humanities declines? First, a political assault on the welfare state that began by defunding education and increasing student debt. Second, an inaccurate student belief that majoring in the humanities leads to lower salaries and higher unemployment. And third, a 50-year culture war against the academy in general and the humanities in particular.

Not a cause of these changes, despite what Tucker Carlson tells you: anything that takes place in the humanities classroom. Those of us who teach know very well that the transformative potential of our material is alive and well. Students are still having their lives changed in our classes. But too often they just that they don’t want to — or think they can’t afford to —take those classes in the first place.

In short, the humanities have a marketing problem. The forms in which we communicate our value to students — the course titles, the names of majors — are, with the significant exception of programs in ethnic and gender studies, no longer as meaningful to the people whose attention they are supposed to attract.

Solving our marketing problem will do little to shift the economic and political forces that aim to turn colleges into job-training programs or to fully capitalize the labor of teaching. To battle those forces we need to act at institutional levels appropriate to the scale of the forces that oppose us. (Up with faculty unions! Up with progressive party organization!) The single most transformative thing that could happen to colleges in the United States would be for attending a public college to no longer be a debt-creating experience.

While we wait for that blessed future to arrive, however, faculty members can act. Because, to be frank, the curriculum is stale. The majors are stale. Neither of them represents the best of what the humanities can be, or foregrounds the power of humanist reason and humanist work.

Here’s the problem: The organization of the undergraduate curriculum around departments and majors suggests, unfortunately, that the main reason to get an education in the humanities is to master a disciplinary field. You major in “history” because you want to know how to “do” history; you major in “English” because you want to learn how to think about literature, or rhetoric, or creative writing. But the vast majority of undergraduates do not want to become professors. They do not need a curriculum that prepares them for subject GRE tests. They do no need (and want less and less) a curriculum that organizes itself around the needs and demands of institutionalized disciplines, as though the only reason to study the humanities were to become a professional humanist.

If we want to teach our students that human life is not organized into disciplines, then we should not organize our curricula into disciplines.

Faculty members already know this. Think about what you really want your students to get out of their classes. It’s rarely something as banal as “a correct understanding of the events and causes of the French Revolution” or “an increased capacity to write about literature,” the kinds of things you’re obliged to claim on your course assessment paperwork. I’m trying to teach my students, in no matter what class I teach, how to understand a problem, a process, or an event — a document, a social form, an inflection point — and to use that understanding to increase their more general capacity to reason humanistically. I hope that doing this kind of thinking increases their capacity to relate to, appreciate, understand, and engage themselves in their own lives and in the lives of others.

The time horizon for that teaching is not the single semester or the course. It’s the student’s lifetime. And so I don’t care too much whether students remember anything specific about most of the books they read with me, or about what they can do by the end of the semester. I care that, in 20 or 30 years, those students will have had a richer and more responsible life than they would have had otherwise. And I hope that the kind of thinking about the world that I helped them learn will have empowered them to do so.

I hope that they will have, for instance, gone to one more exhibition or art show than they might have if they had not taken my class, or read one more article on something interesting, or talked to one more stranger, or used their understanding of care and social force to relate to some particular political issue. I hope that they will find their professional and personal lives extended and expanded by the kinds of thinking and knowing they learned in my class. The course content is, to some extent, incidental.

What if, then, we reorganized the undergraduate curriculum around a set of concepts that instead of foregrounding training in the graduate disciplines, foregrounded topics, skills, and ideas central to humanistic work and central to the interests of students? What if the humanities were marketed within the academy by the names of their best and most important ideas, and not by the names of their calcifying disciplinary formations?

One way to put such a change in place would be to reorganize the existing curriculum into sets of four-course modules. Such modules could come in two types. Skill modules would focus on practices: language learning, writing and speaking, historical, cultural, and social analysis. Theme modules would focus on topics: social justice, migration studies, the problem of God, translation, journalism, wealth and inequality, conflict, ideas of beauty, television, society and technology, and the like. (I should say the module concept developed in conversation with Sandra Berman, Lutz Koepnik, Françoise Lionnet, Thomas Seifrid, and Helmut Müller-Sievers, and draws on language we wrote together for a departmental review in January 2020.)

Each of these modules could include material from the graduate disciplines of history, literature, linguistics, psychology, economic theory, sociology, philosophy, and so on; each of them would open onto a set of questions and problems that would not be restricted to a single discipline or a single type of evidence, or, in most cases, a single set of places and times. Faculty members would have to do extra work in the introductory courses to orient students to a disciplinary context, and to give them a sense of the broad geographical and historical outlines of their questions. They would also need to convey to students that just because modules on issues like sex and sexuality or Latinx studies or Chinese history exist does not mean that they wouldn’t overlap with, say, material in your discussion of human environments or social justice. (You don’t want a curriculum to imply that the study of sexuality or African Americans happens over here, while the study of history “in general” happens over there.)

In such a system, students could combine modules to create majors, including currently existing majors. A student could do modules on historical analysis, the history of North America, and social history, thereby producing a facsimile of the existing history major; or modules on introductory German, German literature and culture, and German for journalism and the professions for a German major. But students could also combine one or more modules with a major from outside the humanities. For example, engineering majors could add modules on urban design, poverty, or Spanish. Or they could create a bespoke humanities major by combining modules on human environments, social justice, and writing.

The advantages of moving to such a program? They include:

  • Appealing immediately to students’ actual interests, or, in other words, meeting students where they are, in current historical conditions, rather than lamenting their lack of interest in traditional humanities majors. We cannot blame students for not liking any more what students two decades ago liked; our job is to teach them, by hook or by crook, not to lament their resistance to being taught.
  • Finding a way to connect to students that does not rely on somewhat uncomfortable models of popularizing (vampire movies) or dumbing down that are often used rhetorically to describe (or justify) changes in the humanities curriculum.
  • Allowing students to build an entire educational experience that makes sense to them intellectually and professionally, as well as to explore far more topics than they do when they now double-major.
  • Not forcing students into majors because they need a credential — the modules serve as the credential and communicate far more clearly than major titles a set of interests, skills, and expertise (to employers and parents as well).
  • Retaining the possibilities of majoring in the humanities via established sequences of three modules (historical analysis, labor history, and African American history, for instance) or of individually developed majors combining three modules chosen by students themselves.
  • Encouraging comparison in geographic, linguistic, and historical modes, since modules would be necessarily epistemologically comparative. You couldn’t teach someone about poverty or justice or technology without using examples that cross space, language, and time. This has the advantage of moving geographic and linguistic breadth away from being an “angle” that one takes on a topic and toward being a necessary precondition of humanist knowledge.
  • Connecting faculty members across disciplines as they seek to respond to historical factors and changing situations. Since modules would rely to some extent on configurations of existing courses you could (A) get rid of outdated modules after 10 to 15 years and (B) create new modules in response to historical situations or the emergence of new fields of study, while waiting to see if they develop and grow (in which case you could create a second or third module) or in fact turn out to be not so interesting after all (in which case you could let them go).

Such an approach would liberate departments from the increasingly difficult task of trying to attract students to a curriculum they view as irrelevant. It would make the functionality of the humanities more visible upfront, instead of leaving career applicability to later efforts by advisers, word-of-mouth communiqués, and the desperation that currently comes with completing one’s degree. In short, it would advance the appeal of the humanities by foregrounding their best topics and ideas.

Of course, putting together a system like this one would involve some complex challenges, not least accreditation issues.

We do not have a model, in the modern academy, and especially in the humanities, for radical institutional revision that is not the product of a financial crisis, or part of an attempt to force the work of teaching and learning into a more capitalized model (which means precarious employment for faculty members and increased debt for students). Accordingly, the only thing that would make renewed and forward-looking change possible would be for an institutional leader — a dean, a provost — to create the conditions under which the humanities faculty felt free to experiment with curriculum outside the shadow of cuts and adjunctification.

Administrator-faculty trust would be paramount. A leader would need to say:

“I understand that people who feel vulnerable have a hard time taking risks, and I want to take risks together. With that in mind, here is the average number of tenure-line faculty in the humanities we have had each year over the last 20 years. In order to keep you from wondering whether this is all just an excuse to shut you down, I promise you that a decade from now, we will have about the same number of tenure-line faculty working in these new majors and fields. This is not a trick.”

Only under these conditions would it be possible for a faculty — which has learned through extensive experience that “change” on campus can only mean cuts, restrictions, and the staving off of disaster — to put in the kind of work that this reinvention would require.

If we want to teach students that human life is not organized into disciplines, then we should not organize our curricula into disciplines. If we want to teach students to see historical connections across differing conditions of global power, we should not organize our literature departments exclusively around modern languages, whose effect is to reproduce over and over again the knowledge and aesthetic work produced in a period of European dominance. If we want students to take a humanistic approach to problems outside the traditional humanities, we should not feel the need to “fit” topics of political or social justice into our courses on the history of the Ming dynasty, but rather be open about the fact that humanist reason can teach us a great deal about social justice or histories of violence, and teach courses that have those things right in the name.

If we want students to understand the relationship between what we teach and questions of immense contemporary concern, we should put those matters of concern into our curricular structures. (Gender and ethnic studies already do that, which may explain, incidentally, why the number of their majors has not dropped during the last decade.) And if we want students and their parents to see how humanistic skills — thinking, writing, speaking, argument, social, cultural, and historical analysis — matter to both their professional and personal futures, we should showcase those skills in the curriculum. We should show them, from the get-go, what’s best and most exciting about what we do.

This essay is adapted from the author’s recent book, Humanist Reason: A History. An Argument. A Plan. (Columbia University Press).

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