Humanities and The “Battle of the University”

By Michal Goldstein and Kaitlyn Tsai, Crimson Staff Writers
By Yao Yin

Throughout high school, Jessica Lao ’23 was set on studying English. Her love of literature dates back to her childhood, when her mother would bring her books from the library: children’s versions of classics like “Pride and Prejudice.”

But when she began college, Lao started doubting whether she should follow this path.

“In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a push that we all need to go to college — it’s how you get social mobility, get a job,” she explains. “I think that with the mindset of ‘we have to go for practical reasons,’ it seems a little ludicrous for us all to go study something really obscure in the humanities and flip through archives. The reason why we all push each other to do finance, consulting clubs, CS and that sort of thing, and the reason we think it’s too ‘indulgent’ to study the humanities is probably because of this wider transformation.”

Indeed, Lao isn’t the only one who has felt these pressures to conform to more “practical” pursuits. In 2008, 236 Harvard students were concentrating in English. That number steadily declined over the next decade, and fell to 54 students in the 2019-20 academic cycle. Meanwhile, the number of Computer Science concentrators rose tremendously, from 86 students in 2008 to 180 in 2019, and it is currently the second most popular concentration at Harvard.

Lao’s story represents a symptom of a problem that has vexed universities in recent decades: the supposed downfall of the humanities, signaled by the decline of undergraduate humanities majors.

In the early 2010s, a wave of coverage detailing this “crisis” swept through American universities. Multiple colleges reported concern for their humanities departments as students’ interests switched over to the sciences, worrying that the humanities would lose necessary funding and that students would miss out on the essential critical thinking skills that are useful for work in all fields. At Harvard, a 2013 article in The Crimson stated that the College had seen a stark decline in humanities concentrators; according to the piece, the number of incoming freshmen who intended to pursue humanities concentrations had fallen 9 percentage points in the previous decade.

Since then, debate around the future of the humanities has died down, as the number of humanities concentrators has stabilized. According to collated data from previous surveys conducted by The Crimson, the number of freshmen intending to concentrate in the humanities has leveled off at around 10 percent of each Harvard class over the last decade.

But this proportion is much lower than it used to be. In the 2019-2020 academic cycle, 13.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in the arts and humanities. By contrast, in the 2010-2011 academic cycle, 21.1 percent of the total class pursued arts and humanities concentrations. This year, the Crimson freshman survey found that only 7.1 percent of the class of 2025 reported an anticipated concentration in the humanities, while 33 percent of the class intended to pursue the social sciences and 49.1 percent intended to pursue the sciences or engineering and applied sciences.

In a 2013 editorial, The Crimson correlated the decline of humanities concentrators to an increase in STEM concentrators, refusing to “rue a development that has advances in things like medicine, and environmental sustainability as its natural consequence.”

The vast disparity between the number of humanities concentrators and social science or STEM concentrators remains indicative of — and risks entrenching — a larger problem: a view of the humanities as notably separate from, and inferior to, these other fields.

“Why spend four years listening to lecturers warn you that you can never really know anything?” the Editorial Board wrote. “To those who are upset with the trend, we say: Let them eat code.”

Cultural perceptions of field divisions have siloed people into thinking of sciences and humanities fields as a zero-sum game, leading them to believe they need to “save” the humanities or that the humanities are “dead.”

This perceived binary between the sciences and the humanities continues to have real consequences: it can leave students feeling locked out of the fields they love. Lao, whose decision to concentrate in Economics was motivated by financial factors, tried to keep up her long standing interests by trying to join an arts organization. But after being rejected twice, she says she began to doubt her abilities to pursue the arts.

“In my mind, I realized that my parents are right; I’m better at being a corporate cog,” she says with a halfhearted laugh, fidgeting with the sleeves of her sweater. “Maybe I personally wasn’t strong enough to keep going on this path.”

Jessica Lao '23 entered college intending to study English, but she is now pursuing a more  “practical” Economics concentration instead.
Jessica Lao '23 entered college intending to study English, but she is now pursuing a more “practical” Economics concentration instead. By Courtesy of Jessica Lao

Practicality vs. Passion

Lao’s internal doubts stemmed from external pressures.

“Before I went to college, there were family friends and relatives of mine who kept making fun of my parents because they thought I was going to study English,” she says. “My parents both did [economics], and they were understandably anxious about me studying something with what they assumed to be very low job prospects.”

Lao’s anxieties only deepened when she saw many of her peers join pre-professional groups, she says. Ultimately, these factors swayed her to concentrate in Economics instead, consigning English to a secondary field.

Now a junior, Lao still grapples with conflicting feelings about her decision to pursue Economics. While she currently feels content with her field of study, she recalls reading her admissions file and feeling like she “scammed” the admissions officer, who seemed excited about Lao’s interests in literature and convinced that she would pursue it at Harvard.

Lao is not the only student who has had concerns over the lack of potential job prospects within humanities careers.

The 2008 financial crisis seems to have been a catalyst for this fear of the humanities in terms of financial security; the data for the decline of students pursuing humanities degrees and the rise of those in STEM over the past decade lines up with the crisis’s economic aftermath.

Yet, it turns out that the perception of the humanities as less employable post-graduation is overstated. In fact, the choice between pursuing a humanities or STEM major bears little indication on a person’s job prospects. A 2018 study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that the unemployment rate among holders of a terminal bachelor’s degree in the humanities was 3.6 percent, while that of those with a terminal bachelor’s degree in engineering was 3.1 percent and, for those in the physical sciences, 3.4 percent. The differences are not as stark as fearful students make them out to be.

Still, when Justin G. Han ’24 entered college, he “very quickly got worried” that he wouldn’t be able to “find a career with only Classics.” Instead, his Classics and Applied Math joint concentration is a chance to pursue a humanities field that he loves alongside a field he believes could provide more post-graduate job security.

The belief that the humanities have less industrial value tends to put the humanities on the defensive. But often, this defense backs the humanities into a corner; in the current cultural trend that prioritizes and only values fields for their practicality, humanities scholars must justify their pursuits in terms of their material utility. Such rationalization for the humanities plays out in arguments that aren’t necessarily helpful or complete, such as the idea that the humanities are solely valuable within the realm of ethics. Tara K. Menon, an assistant professor in the English department, refutes this argument.

“Sometimes this debate plays out in terms of ‘Oh, the humanities make you a better person,’” Menon says, rebutting the idea that “you read a book and that makes you more sensitive or sympathetic to other people.”

Instead, she argues that the humanities are important because “they are tools for thinking with.”

According to Menon, global citizens should be “ready to engage with ideas and think better with them.” She continues, “I think that is not only a skill — I don't love the language of skills that is deployed and has been a consequence of STEM winning the battle of the university — but that this is an essential quality for being a human in the world.”

The “Battle of the University”

This “battle of the university” is something that Julie Heng ’24 has paid particular attention to. From an early age, Heng, a Crimson Editorial editor, was frustrated by the idea of the humanities- or STEM-oriented brain as innate.

“I can remember, for a really long time, questioning the specialization of fields, starting from probably middle and high school when people say that, ‘Oh, well, I’d rather do hours of math instead of an essay’ or vice versa,” she says.

As Heng describes, students often view their concentration choice as a de facto personality test — as something that reflects an inborn capability.

Even the differences between physical spaces on Harvard’s campus are representative of this perceived division. While humanities concentrators find repose in the Barker Center, with its red-brick walls and cozy classrooms, often decorated by art prints and bookshelves, STEM students have taken ownership of the recently-built $1 billion Science and Engineering Complex in Allston. The SEC commands attention, its sustainable design and angular exterior illustrating its aura of innovation and modernity. Cabot Science Library, located within the Science Center, captures the same aesthetic themes: sleek, bright, new. Meanwhile, Lamont Library houses the Woodberry Poetry Room and Farnsworth Room, low-light spaces filled with books and homey lounge chairs.

According to Joyce E. Chaplin, Professor of Early American History, the division of the fields primarily dates back to the 19th century — as knowledge in various fields deepened, one had to specialize in a particular discipline in order to claim expertise in it.

“To claim in the 16th century you understood mechanical philosophy, which we now regard as an ancestor of physics, is a different proposition from being able to do research in physics now and to claim a part of it in your area of specialization,” Chaplin explains. “We have a kind of investment in claiming that specialization is the way we understand the world, and that there is validity to this.” This specialization, she adds, can cut disciplines off from each other, making interdisciplinary collaboration difficult.

Joyce E. Chaplin, Professor of Early American History, says the separation of the sciences and humanities primarily dates back to the 19th century.
Joyce E. Chaplin, Professor of Early American History, says the separation of the sciences and humanities primarily dates back to the 19th century. By Christopher Hidalgo

Exacerbating the issues with specialization, however, is a broader problem with the way society values different fields. When people feel pressured to choose between disciplines, they may opt for a field in the sciences due to the aforementioned anxiety about job prospects.

For Jane X. Chen ’12, the realization of this devaluation caused her to shift her career trajectory. Though Chen concentrated in History, she decided to enter the world of finance after graduation. Quickly feeling unfulfilled by her career — a field she says wasn’t “a true reflection of [her] values and what [she] wanted to contribute to society” — she spent time after hours volunteering as a writing tutor for immigrant students in Queens. For the seniors she helped with college essays, Chen realized that the problems with their writing couldn’t be immediately fixed; it was “way too late in the game,” and the issues should have been “dealt with 10 years prior,” she says.

In response, she quit her job in finance and founded the Eyre Writing Center to teach writing skills to elementary schoolers through her own curriculum. To her, the EWC is about “democratizing access to writing,” trying to combat what she sees as a lack of accessible resources in comparison to STEM fields.

“I think there are just a ton of STEM resources out there to get really passionate,” she says, emphasizing that it’s possible to teach STEM subjects in the format of video learning or online quizzes. By contrast, Chen believes that these resources do not adapt as well to something as “personal and high-touch as writing.”

Making the humanities more accessible is imperative for exploring its intersections with other fields. In an op-ed for The Crimson, Heng, who studies Integrative Biology with a secondary in Philosophy, describes a number of modern problems that require solutions which connect the sciences and humanities. At the end of her piece, she shifts focus to the way this issue can be addressed at Harvard in a space she calls a “Third Enlightenment Salon.” The name and concept reference 17th century salon gatherings — popularized in France throughout the Enlightenment era and giving way to the Scientific Revolution — where everyday citizens interested in philosophy and religion could freely discuss their ideas.

Heng writes: “According to Anthony Gottlieb’s ‘The Dream of Enlightenment,’ two Enlightenments — bursts of creativity — have fundamentally shaped Western philosophy: the First Enlightenment in the sixth century B.C. birthed the humanities; the Second in the 17th century grew the sciences.” She argues that society today needs a “Third Enlightenment to harmonize the two.”

Heng has brought that Third Enlightenment Salon to life, founding the Harvard Undergraduate Salon for the Sciences and Humanities along with Chinmay M. Deshpande ’24 and Henry N. Haimo ’24. This past Valentine’s Day, the Salon met for the first time in Memorial Hall 303 above Annenberg.

From left to right: Chinmay M. Deshpande '24, Julie Heng '24, and Henry N. Haimo '24, founders of the Harvard Undergraduate Salon for the Sciences and Humanities.
From left to right: Chinmay M. Deshpande '24, Julie Heng '24, and Henry N. Haimo '24, founders of the Harvard Undergraduate Salon for the Sciences and Humanities. By Christopher Hidalgo

The Salon hopes to correct the hyper-specialization of fields by providing a space for interdisciplinary discussion. According to Haimo, the Salon’s goal is to “find people who are actively reaching across the academic aisle.”

“What are the unique values that the sciences and humanities bring?” Heng asks. “And how can we put them in conversation together to solve big questions?”

Merging the “Two Cultures”

With its plain, cream-colored facade, 42 Kirkland St. looks like an ordinary triple-decker at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. On a regular stroll past the building, it’s easy to miss the three small windows perched along its rooftop, indicators of a fourth floor: the metaLAB.

Founded in January 2011 by Jeffrey T. Schnapp, a professor in the Romance Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature departments, the metaLAB is a “do tank”— an experimental platform of artists, technologists, and scholars delving into novel ways of approaching technology with creative and critical lenses, merging and redefining scientific and artistic fields.

In his clear-framed glasses, neatly-trimmed goatee, and plain mauve sweatshirt, Schnapp lights up describing one of the metaLAB’s ongoing projects, the Future Stage: an initiative to revolutionize the performing arts.

Schnapp says he and his team drew inspiration for this project after watching performing artists turn to technology in order to continue their craft during the pandemic, such as through live streaming or TikTok videos. “How do we take those opportunities and really make them integral to forms of spectacle today, in ways that don't just treat live streaming as a backup?” he asks.

The Future Stage’s visions and principles can be summarized in its manifesto, which has garnered attention worldwide and been translated into eight languages. Written by almost 40 leading figures in the performing arts world, including dancers, technologists, and policymakers, the manifesto includes phrases like “performance as a human right,” “an expanded notion of liveness,” and “democratize and delocalize.”

Although some may conceptualize this type of work as digitizing the arts, Schnapp says he doesn’t view it that way. Rather, he argues, technology and science and the arts feed into each other — and always have fed into each other — to generate projects and ideas that help advance society overall.

Jeffrey Schnapp founded the Harvard metaLAB to blend technology with the arts and humanities.
Jeffrey Schnapp founded the Harvard metaLAB to blend technology with the arts and humanities. By Courtesy of Jeffrey Schnapp

“I don’t like the label ‘digital humanities’ because it suggests somehow that the ‘digital’ is doing the innovative work,” he says. “I think it comes on both sides of that formula, that we need to renew and reinvigorate our models of teaching, knowledge production — every aspect.”

Taking the Future Stage as an example, Schnapp explains that part of the project also involves finding ways to engage younger audiences in traditional art forms, like live opera. “It’s not about having screens all over the place,” he says.

The reluctance to erase boundaries between different disciplines, he argues, ultimately prevents academic institutions from addressing key issues, chief among them making knowledge accessible. And although artistic and humanistic fields cannot shoulder this burden alone, Schnapp acknowledges that they are uniquely suited to addressing these problems.

For example, he says, the metaLAB has pursued several projects telling stories of climate change using environmental data, conveying the information in visualizations that are more accessible to the public than academic articles.

“There’s a role for many different disciplinary traditions and practices to be at the cutting edge of how we create meaningful experiences and how we make arguments and how we build knowledge today,” Schnapp argues. Citing the 20th century novelist C.P. Snow, he adds, “The kind of ‘two cultures problem’ is really an artificial division between what are, in reality, all practices that are very closely interconnected.”

The “cutting edge” doesn’t have to be restricted to projects like the metaLAB’s, however. Even in the realm of more traditional academia, scholars can find ways to weave together different fields for broader goals.

Menon, who uses computational methods to study the Victorian-era novel, does just that. Menon researches direct speech within 900 19th-century novels, combining data and literary analyses to observe large-scale trends in the use of speech.

Yet Menon says that she thinks of her methods as reliable tools to “answer the kinds of questions that have always interested [her] in humanistic inquiry,” rather than a form of “digitizing” the humanities.

Tara K. Menon, assistant professor of English, uses computational methods to study 19th-century novels.
Tara K. Menon, assistant professor of English, uses computational methods to study 19th-century novels. By Courtesy of Lauren Crothers

Both Schnapp’s work with the metaLAB and Menon’s use of computational models exemplify what the collaboration between different fields could yield. But their projects are currently outliers; in order for interdisciplinary projects to become more common, universities and students must first address the “two cultures problem,” primarily by first recognizing that the humanities are worth enough for them to incorporate into their academic repertoire.

The university has been striving to address this through initiatives such as the Intergenerational Humanities Project, a rotating three-year research project that aims to involve students and faculty from all backgrounds in in-depth, interdisciplinary humanities research. Under the I-HUM umbrella is the recently-launched Undergraduate Scholars Initiative, a two-course series for sophomores which emphasizes the foundational skills of the humanities.

The university is expected to approve so-called double concentrations later this month, according to an announcement from the Undergraduate Council. Double concentrations would allow students to study any two concentrations of their choice without the requirement of writing a thesis that combines both disciplines — a common complaint against the current joint concentration system.

But the cultural bias against the humanities makes it difficult to find a path forward. And though a college curriculum isn’t enough to change a culture, Menon argues that incorporating more humanities classes into students’ schedules is a start. She believes that people must value the humanities individually, aside from their possible contributions to other fields.

Menon argues that having a “mandatory class” for all students similar to Humanities 10 could encourage students to engage with the humanities. She says that the syllabus does not need to match up exactly to Humanities 10, but that the class should include “great works of literature.”

In her opinion, there are two ways to measure the decline in the humanities: by concentration numbers or by enrollment figures. While she says that concentration numbers are declining at a much faster rate than enrollment numbers, her suggestion for a mandatory class emphasizes that those enrollment numbers still matter and can make a significant change in students’ understanding of why the humanities are valuable.

The Path Forward

Set against a deep plum background, a virtual gallery displays hundreds of works from around the world: poems and letters, both typed and handwritten, paintings of sunsets, sketches of solitary figures, graphic designs, and everything in between. “I ponder over words in solitude,” reads one letter from a 16-year-old girl in India. “I make these turbulent stories that talk of nothing but storms, sometimes paradise too, but storms are more real than utopia.”

Alongside her younger sister Sarah C. Lao ’25 and Carissa J. Chen ’21, Lao launched the Dear Loneliness Project — a part of Schnapp’s metaLAB — shortly after the pandemic began, as a means of helping people navigate large-scale isolation and uncertainty. The project aims to be the longest letter to the world, a memorial to 2020 from people across the globe, each documenting their emotions and experiences during the pandemic.

But for Lao, the Dear Loneliness Project holds a more intimate significance: it allows her to rekindle, even if only briefly, her love for literature. Through reading the letters — like ones from a 70-year-old man inspired to write back to letters he accumulated throughout his life — Lao remembered the distinctly human aspect of literature that she once cherished so much.

During the pandemic, she was reminded of the “empathy superpower” of literature, which helped her reframe her views of what it means to lead a meaningful life beyond having a stable job.

“I think that it really put things into perspective, like, what is our life?” she says. “For me, it's all about developing empathy and being able to live more lives than the one you are confined to, which is important in a time of great turmoil,” she adds.

For Soleil C. Saint-Cyr ’25, the pandemic helped her realize that she didn’t have to — or rather, shouldn’t — choose between her interests in literature and computer science.

She says that during the pandemic, “people became isolated, became depressed, even though there were Zoom calls every day. Because we realize the limitations of technology, a lot more people who have previously heavily invested in the idea that tech can solve all of our problems are kind of shifting away from that.”

For the founders of the Salon, the pandemic also brought to light the broader stakes of treating the humanities as irreconcilable with the sciences. Deshpande describes the “sharp dichotomy” between people who would focus solely on the scientific angle of the pandemic — information on how viruses spread — and people who looked at the pandemic in terms of its social and psychological consequences, determining that humans fundamentally needed in-person connection.

But he says neither side was effective in creating a viable solution to the pandemic for all. “It seems clear that any sort of sensible policy would have to take into account both the first side of things, which is traditionally the scientific enterprise, and the second side of traditionally humanistic enterprise,” he says.

Although it remains too early to determine whether the pandemic will truly lead to the sustained cultural shift required to break down the perceived binary between the humanities and the sciences, it appears that it has at least given some individuals the chance to re-evaluate their priorities when it comes to pursuing a certain field. Efforts like the Salon may be the impetus for generating such a change.

By the end of the hour at the Salon’s first meeting, someone has to remind the group of the time, pulling them from a discussion that leaves them with more questions than answers about the pursuit of knowledge — within and beyond the walls of Harvard. Still, the gathering provides a beacon of hope: the beginnings of a cultural shift away from field divisions that has the power to foster meaningful collaboration.

— Magazine writer Michal Goldstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bymgoldstein.

— Magazine writer Kaitlyn Tsai can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kaitlyntsaiii.

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