A scientific approach ... to the humanities

If you ask Francis Oakley, former president of Williams College and noted medieval scholar, what is needed to improve higher education, he'll tell you that professors in the humanities must learn to count.

No, Dr. Oakley doesn't have problems balancing his checkbook. What he's talking about is the emerging quest among such historically number-challenged disciplines as English, philosophy, history, sociology, and the arts to "quantify the humanities."

How much time do history professors spend researching arcane academic papers – compared to the time they spend teaching? How many humanities students and courses are there, anyway?

It's not that inquiring minds are desperate to know the minutiae of the humanities for their own sake. But such tallies are critical to budget and policy debates that could ultimately determine whether long-held core disciplines remain vibrant sectors of American higher education or become intellectual backwaters, Oakley and others say.

When it comes time to allocate resources, college administrators generally can count on the science disciplines to provide carefully collected national-trend data to back up requests for faculty positions. Chairmen in humanities departments, however, often end up twiddling their thumbs and hoping for the best. The data just aren't there.

Leslie Berlowitz wants to change that. As executive officer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in Cambridge, Mass., she is pushing other humanities organizations and individual professors to collect more and better data. The AAAS took up the challenge in 1998 to create a coherent "humanities database" out of the flotsam of data currently available.

"To really understand what's happening to any discipline it's helpful to understand trends and numbers to see if things have alarmingly changed," she says. "There is already a lot of planning data for science and engineering and health. Notably absent are the humanities."

Robert Solow, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and Nobel Laureate, could not agree more. He helped pioneer "Science and Engineering Indicators," the biennial 1,200-plus page bible of the nation's science disciplines that quantifies everything from trends in graduate enrollment by discipline to growth rates in the agricultural sciences.

Indicators for the humanities

Even though his field of study is a league distant from the humanities, Dr. Solow has strongly supported the fledgling move to develop a set of humanities indicators akin to those he helped create for the sciences.

"The humanities community knows deplorably little about what is taught to whom and by whom, how long it takes, where graduates and postgraduates go, what they do when they get there, and how many of them there are," Solow says.

Tracking numbers is not only important for waging budget battles on campus; it's also handy to have them in reserve when critics take potshots at the quality of humanities instruction. Just ask Oakley.

"Having got caught up in the battle of the books in the 1980s, it hit me how little concrete data we had in the humanistic disciplines," Oakley says, referring to the debates over what should be required reading in college.

Awash in 'The Color Purple'?

He recalls that during the culture wars of the late 1980s and early '90s, one war-horse anecdote was frequently trotted out by critics and attributed to an English department chairman.

That chairman had off-handedly suggested to an interviewer that Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" was taught in more English courses today than were all of Shakespeare's plays combined. It was red meat for critics, who quickly claimed it as a prima facie example of watered-down intellectual quality cum liberal orthodoxy that was infecting the humanities – and a key reason students were shunning the humanities in droves.

Nice hypothesis – except it just wasn't true. Several years later, a 1990-91 national survey of literature studied in English classrooms found that Walker constituted 1 percent of the class reading material, behind Cotton Mather (2.1 percent) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (66 percent). Shakespeare was alive and well in the pack, too.

"The country at the time was awash in sweeping generalization about the decline and fall of the humanities," Oakley says. "It's also now been shown that those declines were not across-the-board as had been claimed. But we didn't have the empirical data to back that up at the time."

Phyllis Franklin, who retired last month as executive director of the Modern Language Association, says the humanities-indicators project is key.

"Being counted means that you count," she says. "The humanities has not been in a good position to explain itself, to understand the institutional and systemic issues that affect it."

If she and her colleagues are successful, a database of humanities indicators will be up and running with a baseline set of data somewhere around 2005. A number of organizations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, are already on board.

But the cost and effort are significant. And the question remains: Can the natural inertia resident in so much of higher education be overcome?

If the AAAS and its backers aren't successful, then the humanities will do what they've been doing and "just muddle through," Dr. Franklin says.

But Solow, for one, insists there's at least one more powerful reason for the humanities to overcome the inertia: "Know thyself."

"It seems to me that the humanities, which are disciplines that instruct people to know themselves, ought really to know themselves as well," he says. "To know exactly what you are and what you do is a useful thing in helping to examine your own motives. That's true for a person or a country – or a field of endeavor."

How literary, artistic types can stand up and be counted

As they try to prove their worth during budget battles and long-range planning meetings, humanities advocates want to have a clearer picture of the participation in fields such as history, philosophy, and literature. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences plans to track some key indicators, including:

• The number of undergraduate and graduate students studying in humanities fields at colleges and universities.

• The number of BA, MA, and PhD degrees awarded annually in humanities fields.

• The numbers of humanities centers, institutes, and other research organizations.

• The number of humanities teachers in secondary schools.

• The number of humanities practitioners employed outside of academia, and a description of their work.

• The annual level of scholarly activity of humanities faculty, in terms of the number, form, and content of their publications.

• Annual amounts of financial support from government and other public and private sources for research in humanities fields.

• Levels of public participation in humanities-related activities, such as library membership, museum attendance, and contributions to humanities organizations.

source: Making the Humanities Count, a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

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