Humanities in the United States

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Humanities in the United States refers to the study of humanities disciplines, such as literature, history, language, performing and visual arts or philosophy, in the United States of America.


Many American colleges and universities believe in the notion of a broad "liberal arts education", which requires all college students to study the humanities in addition to their specific area of study. Such colleges as Saint Anselm College and Providence College have nationally recognized, required two-year programs for their students. Prominent proponents of liberal arts in the United States have included Mortimer J. Adler[1] and E.D. Hirsch.

The 1980 United States Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities described the humanities in its report, The Humanities in American Life:

Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason.

Criticism of the traditional humanities/liberal arts degree program has been leveled by critics who see them as both expensive and relatively "useless" in the modern American job market, where several years of specialized study is required in most job fields. This is in direct contrast to the early 20th century when approximately 3% to 6% of the public at large had a university degree, and having one was a direct path to a professional life.

After World War II, many millions of US veterans took advantage of the GI Bill. Further expansion of federal education grants and loans have expanded the number of adults in the United States who have attended a college. In 2003, around 53% of the population had some college education with 27.2% having graduated with a Bachelor degree or higher, including 8% who graduated with a graduate degree.[2] As a result there is keen competition among those with degrees in the humanities as many may find themselves unable to find employment outside academia. Meanwhile, there are many changes and debates occurring today in the humanities:

Questioning distinctions[edit]

The very concept of the ‘humanities’ as a class or kind, distinct from the ’sciences’, has come under repeated attack in the twentieth century. T.S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[3] argued that the forces driving scientific progress often have less to do with objective inference from unbiased observation than with much more value-laden sociological and cultural factors. More recently, Richard Rorty has argued that the distinction between the sciences and the humanities is harmful to both pursuits, placing the former on an undeserved pedestal and condemning the latter to irrationality. Rorty’s position requires a wholesale rejection of such traditional philosophical distinctions as those between appearance and reality, subjective and objective, replacing them with what he endorses as a new ‘fuzziness’. This leads to a kind of pragmatism where "the oppositions between the humanities, the arts, and the sciences, might gradually fade away... In this situation, ‘the humanities’ would no longer think of themselves as such...."[4]

Modernism and postmodernism[edit]

In the United States, the late 20th century saw a challenge to the "elitism" of the humanities, which Edward Said has characterized as a "conservative philosophy of gentlemanly refinement, or sensibility." Such postmodernists argue that the humanities should go beyond the study of "dead white males" to include work by women and people of color, and without religious bias. The French philosopher Michel Foucault has been a very influential part of this movement, stating in The Order of Things that "we can study only individuals, not human nature."

However some in the humanities believe that such changes may be detrimental, as they lead to moral relativism and the concept that one person's interpretation is as good as any other. The literary critic Denis Donoghue suggests that modern criticism reduces the rich symbolism of such plays as Macbeth to a simplistic "find the villain", with Lady Macbeth regarded as the victim of bloody-minded, power-mad masculine society; the result is said to be what E. D. Hirsch Jr. refers to as declining cultural literacy.[5]

The modernist considers that there is a canon of "great works" in literature and art which have an inherent quality, but the postmodernist argues that such ideas of greatness have been heavily biased by gender and culture. The modernist advocates close reading of a few works in literature, but the postmodernist generally favors more "extensive reading" of a large variety of works, while still, in many cases, relying on the method of close reading.

National institutions[edit]

President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act in 1965,[6] creating the National Council on the Humanities, and funded the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1969. NEH is an independent grant-making agency of the United States government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities (see Public humanities).

NEH facilitated the creation of State Humanities Councils[7] in the 56 U.S. states and territories. Each council operates independently, defining the "humanities" in relationship to the disciplines, subjects, and values valued in the regions they serve. Councils give grant funds to individuals, scholars, and nonprofit organizations dedicated to the humanities in their region. Councils also offer diverse programs and services that respond to the needs of their communities and according to their own definitions of the humanities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adler, Mortimer J.; "A Guidebook to Learning: For the Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom"
  2. ^ "US Census Bureau, educational attainment in 2003". Retrieved 2007-01-03. [dead link]
  3. ^ Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The University of Chicago Press, 1962
  4. ^ Rorty, Richard, Science as Solidarity, in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers Volume I, Cambridge University Press, 1991
  5. ^ Kernan, Alvin, editor; What's Happened to the Humanities?, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997
  6. ^
  7. ^

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