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Facing Market Demand for the Humanities

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According to Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr, 82 percent of academic journal articles written in the humanities are never cited. Not once. In addition, Biswas and Kirchherr claim that the average academic article is only read by 10 people in the lifetime of that article. No wonder Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton told journalism students at Eastern Kentucky University to avoid studying history. No wonder Kentucky-governor Matt Bevin wants to cut state-funding to the humanities. There simply is no market demand for the humanities anymore. Right? Well, perhaps and perhaps not.

According to Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, more doctoral students in the humanities rely on their own income to get through school than those in the natural sciences and engineering. The average debt accumulated by graduate students in the humanities increased to record highs in 2012. From 2005 to 2012, education-related debt increased 54% amongst humanities students, and graduate students in the humanities now face an average personal debt almost 68% higher than students in other fields. For those who can somehow escape the debt trap of graduate school, however, Inside Higher Ed reports that of those who obtain a PhD in the humanities, only about 48% will ever get a tenure track position after they dot the last ‘I’ and cross the last ‘T’ of their dissertations.

With more and more politicians promoting STEM over the humanities, and with more and more graduate students going into serious debt in order to pursue non-engineering or natural science careers, it’s pretty clear where our nation places its priorities.

The market is not on the side of the humanities. But, what if we could change that reality?

As a graduate student at The University of Chicago, I saw a lot of raised eyebrows when I told people what I was studying. Eighteenth-century American politics and religion clearly won’t get you a job, after all. Well, that’s the prevailing opinion at least. But, it’s not the reality, no matter what the numbers say.

The truth is that the public aren’t inherently uninterested in the humanities. In fact, the public want to engage in deeper conversations about all sorts of subjects, and there is a real market demand for the humanities. That market demand just looks different than it did in the past, and academics are generally disengaged from the reality of such changes.

Organizations like the Chicago Humanities Festival, Illinois Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and many state branches of the NEH are doing excellent work day-in and day-out to engage the public in truly rewarding conversations rooted in the humanities. And they’re making a success of it, too. In my personal opinion, organizations like these are the future of the humanities because they are on the front lines of a changing value-based perspective of the humanities outside of the academy. They’re doing the work that most needs to be done, and they’re engaging the public in a way that meets real market demand. Academics, however, are not always on the same side.

Academics work incredibly hard to produce important research on all sorts of subjects. And we desperately need that research to continue growing as a society. But, with so few people actually reading the articles that academics produce, it’s time that academics change their priorities. It’s time that academics change their audience.

In a recent article for The Conversation, Savo Heleta claimed that “Academics need to start playing a more prominent role in society instead of largely remaining observers who write about the world from within ivory towers and publish their findings in journals hidden behind expensive digital paywalls.” Heleta claims that academics need to stop talking to each other and start engaging the broader non-academic community. I couldn’t agree more.

But what incentive do academics have? Their intellectual mission, according to Heleta, does not include the general public, and Heleta claims that universities don’t give academics any real reason to care about engaging with a public audience outside of the latest academic controversy buried in the pages of whatever academic journal lucky enough to generate it. But, if academics lack incentives for engaging the broader public, perhaps the trends above will serve as a start. Perhaps the threat of becoming totally obsolete in the eyes of the public and the job market will get academics out into the streets, proclaiming the good news of their research at every traffic stop and bringing non-academics into that conversation.

I agree with Heleta that the time has come for academics to embrace their vocation outside of the Ivory Tower and humble themselves to the greater cause. Organizations like the Chicago Humanities Festival, and all the other great state agencies and local organizations investing in the cause of the humanities are perfect partners for academics who want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. Together, academics and the nonprofit world can change our national priorities. Together we can achieve a better balance between STEM and the humanities. Together we can achieve a better balance between tenure-track professorship and public engagement. Academics can, in Heleta’s words, change the world. They just need a little push in that direction. The non-academic world can help.

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Personal well-being cannot be understood abstractly, without reference to the tradition, culture, and history of the collectivity in which persons live and function.

J. P. Daughton, An Empire Divided

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