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Taking the Pulse of the Humanities

The federal government should play a greater role in tracking humanities indicators.
University Business, Jul 2006

It is very good news that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) has received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its Humanities Indicators project. Without baseline information about the state of the humanities and systematic tracking of changes over time, no informed planning is possible by liberal arts institutions and others concerned about the health of these fields. At the same time, the foundation's generous grant does not ensure the collection and publication of reliable data over time. Now is the time to address the long-term future of data collection about the humanities.

The humanities play an especially large role in the preparation of well-informed citizens in a democracy. Low voter-participation rates and unfamiliarity with pressing current issues are the results of failings in schools and colleges to promote foreign language learning, familiarity with major texts of the American political tradition, and knowledge of American and world history. Quantitative measures of the state of the humanities are especially useful for college and university leaders who may be tempted in curricular and budget planning to give these fields short shrift. The humanities may not always be popular among students, but they are the heart of a liberal arts education.

The humanities may not be popular among students, but they are the heart of a liberal arts education.

The federal government should take responsibility for tracking the Humanities Indicators, just as for many years the National Science Foundation has been required by Congress to report on the state of the sciences. Despite political shifts in the White House and Congress and despite ups and downs in federal appropriations, NSF has produced Science Indicators regularly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does something similar for employment, and the Education Department does it for school enrollment. Even libertarians who are skeptical about any expansive federal role concede that collecting basic data is an appropriate government role. As a matter of sound public policy, this responsibility should not be permanently in private hands, despite Mellon's recent largesse.

There is a history to the AAAS project (in which I played a small part) that may offer lessons for the future. In its early years, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) maintained an office that collected humanities data and supported studies using the data. Sheldon Hackney, then NEH's chairman, eliminated most of these activities as part of 1995 budget reductions. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation approached him about the need for NEH to resume collection of statistics on the humanities, and Hackney agreed. But, he said, the federal budget planning process required so much lead time that it would be close to two years before NEH could devote staff or funds to this function. At the time, the Mellon Foundation agreed to jump-start the data collection effort with the understanding that it would be transferred to NEH once the budget had been secured, probably in two years.

Arnita Jones, then at the Organization of American Historians, and Bettina Huber at the Modern Language Association were asked to make the inventory. An advisory committee included people from Mellon, NEH, and the National Humanities Alliance. By the time the inventory was completed, NEH Chairman Hackney had been replaced by William Ferris. Although the 1995 budget cuts were gradually being reversed, Ferris declined to include in his annual Congressional budget proposals any support for a data collection and analysis office, saying he had other priorities.

Now, nearly a decade later, thanks to the efforts of the AAAS and Mellon's support, the project may be revived. But as Norman Bradburn, former director of the National Opinion Research Center and now head of the AAAS project, has noted, Mellon can't support the project forever; NEH is still the obvious candidate to take on this public responsibility. Its current chairman, Bruce Cole, should agree to do so. This time, the legislative language accompanying NEH's appropriations should make clear the Congressional requirement that NEH has an ongoing responsibility to provide this fundamental service.

Richard Ekman is the president of the Council of Independent Colleges. He can be reached at

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