Is it Time for the Humanities to Strike?

by Nathan Eckstrand

The “climate kids” strike is inspiring. At an age when students are traditionally focused on studies, relationships, and hobbies, these teenagers are advocating for a solution to perhaps our most intransigent problem. Their words are equally encouraging. 16-year old Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg describes the situation by saying, “There is a crisis in front of us that we have to live with, that we will have to live with for all our lives, our children, our grandchildren and all future generations…We won’t accept that, we won’t let that happen and that’s why we go on strike. We are on strike because we do want a future, we will carry on.” The world’s children say they won’t accept the future the adults are currently leaving them, and they are right to do so. It should shame all of us that we knowingly created a deadlier world for them and did relatively little to fix it.

Their refusal to stay silent compels me to do the same in support of a similar issue: the tragic state of the humanities. For decades they have been shrinking throughout parts of the world, quite drastically so since the Great Recession. While we should not conflate an issue that poses an existential threat to the earth with the loss of institutions, practices, and ideas that help us understand the human experience, neither should we avoid clearly stating what we are losing. As philosophy, history, theology, languages, classics, linguistics, and art disappear from society, we give up our soul—the very things that make us who we are. Without philosophy we lose our ideas; without history, our past; without theology, our spirituality; without English, our communication; and so on. Ending the humanities is the death of what it means to be human.

On a basic level, the value of the humanities is undeniable. Anyone who enjoys reading a book, appreciates good speaking, is fascinated by new ideas, or treasures knowing their ancestry benefits from the humanities. But the institution of the humanities adds to society as well. Humanities courses are among the most common courses taken at college, and several polls show certain humanities fields are among the most popular college majors (one site says the humanities, as a group, are more popular than business, nursing, and health professions). During times of middle-class economic growth, humanities class enrollment normally increases, implying that when economic security is not an issue, people desire a humanities education. Additionally, research shows that humanities undergraduates feel more support from their mentors than others, that the arts produce economic wealth, that the public appreciates the qualities art cultivates, that critical thinking is an essential part of every college’s pedagogical model, and that humanities majors do very well in the workforce (in part because employers prize those trained in it).

The damage done when the humanities disappear is stark. People aren’t trained in critical thinking, communication, and basic facts about society. Rational discussion based on a common understanding of the world vanishes, replaced by dogma and antagonism.[1] Despite this near universal acclaim for the work the humanities do, the budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts has been slashed numerous times over the last few decades (and Trump’s suggested budget eliminates it entirely), though it has risen slightly in the last few years. Academic jobs have disappeared across the board while more PhDs are leaving academia entirely. Multiple articles report on the attempts of governors, presidents, and other administrators to consolidate or completely slash humanities departments (two of the most recent examples are the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s attempt to drop 13 majors, causing protests that led to a complete abandonment of the cuts, and the University of Tulsa’s proposed elimination of the philosophy and religion departments). The only way to square these two facts is to realize just how much the adjunct crisis has affected higher education, which, as data shows, harms both students and professors. Part-time faculty have become more common than tenured, tenure-track, or full time non-tenure-track faculty, a fact made even more disturbing when you note the disproportionate number of women and people of color occupying those positions. As the American Association of University Professors notes, this trend threatens academic freedom, a bedrock of the educational system—and democracy—for generations.

There are similar problems abroad. Arts and humanities graduates in Britain are more likely than any other type to be under-using their degree. Last March, the UK government suggested a two-tiered system for funding different degree programs—STEM programs on one tier, and arts and humanities on another—that would see the latter lose a significant amount of government money and shrink even further. The amount of money the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council spends each year has been relatively stable for about a decade, though inflation means this money does less now than it could previously. And the UK’s Education secretary recently called for an end to “low value” degrees (defined as any degree where students aren’t making enough in five years to begin loan repayments). While perhaps not targeting the humanities directly, this final policy makes education serve the needs of business alone, and it’s questionable whether many humanities degrees would survive this culling.

Many schools in Russia are seeing significant cuts in both faculty and budgets, and the Russian State University for the Humanities has lost many professors and administrators. Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro is trying to eliminate philosophy and sociology departments altogether because of the “Marxist rubbish” they teach.  Combine these facts with the numerous examples of states persecuting humanities scholars for their speech or work, and it’s clear the problem is not limited to one country.

The near universal consensus that the humanities should play a role in society, accompanied by their continuing atrophy, would at first glance seem to provide us with one of those rare easy-to-solve problems. If most people want the humanities and recognize they are in crisis, it should be easy to muster the necessary will to reinvest in them. Unfortunately, several factors currently prevent this. The first and most obvious is the neoliberal economy that demands liberal arts departments be financially sustainable. The argument that there are long-term and not directly monetizable values that the humanities provides falls on deaf ears, especially when the board of trustees or other investors compel schools to focus on the bottom line. Another problem is that helping the humanities takes a backseat to other troubles. The suffering of underpaid and overworked teachers seems minor next to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, big data’s invasions of privacy, and environmental threats. But is it wise to separate these problems? Fixing our broken politics, society, and environment requires communication, reasoned argumentation, and intellectual thought—the very things the humanities cultivate. The best path forward is not always the most obvious. While fixing the humanities is not a panacea, it may be a necessary condition for solving our other problems.

The third issue is that while solving this crisis has a consensus, the form it should take does not. The humanities are criticized for their lack of gender and racial representation (among other things), for being too political, and for not serving the vocational needs of society. Groups articulating each view often disagree with the other views, leading to fights about the best way forward. Some prefer for the humanities to fail rather than another perspective to succeed. Though the humanities aren’t perfect, they are undoubtedly better to have—even when imperfect—than to do without. The humanities are fundamental for democracy, as citizens must use them to do their civic duties. Even if the humanities aren’t prefigured as we desire, they should be given as much consideration as we give to other democratic practices.

Some say the humanities aren’t disappearing, only settling into a new role. Advocating for them is unnecessary, since if we wait they will find a more appropriate place. The naiveté of this belief is revealed by history. The desires that produce the humanities may not disappear, but we can still lose something vital. These desires didn’t prevent Europe from falling into the Dark Ages for centuries, nor did they prevent many instances of human oppression. While the humanities have at times contributed to subjugation, abandoning them increases the likelihood we will revisit, rather than learn from, such negative experiences. When you include climate change, totalitarianism, influenza outbreaks, and more, it becomes clear we cannot trust natural or social systems to save us from disaster. And while other disasters can be observed as they happen, we may not realize what losing the humanities costs until it’s too late.

Suggestions for improvement—like recognizing that non-tenure-track positions aren’t going to disappear, understanding the power structure of your university, and organizing adjuncts on campus—are helpful but inadequate. The crisis of the humanities is global, and linked to many highly interconnected systems. Working on the local level with one’s administration, department, and colleagues will only be marginally effective, for it doesn’t raise the issue with those who need to hear about it: the public and both political and economic decision makers. These groups need to know what they are losing and why it should be preserved. College administrators must also be pressured to support the humanities. Often, they are compelled by the college’s investors to produce profitability at the expense of a well-rounded education. Personal experience has taught me that while university officials speak glowingly of the liberal arts and how it changed their lives, they follow that up by saying economic demands are forcing cuts and layoffs. Similarly, politicians I have tried to speak with (as part of Humanities Advocacy Day) fail to show up, instead sending members of their staff to express concern without making any promises. While politicians cannot attend every meeting nor specialize in every issue (and some are concerned about the humanities), the haste and attention which some issues get, compared with that which the humanities receive, indicates a set of priorities that renders this problem perpetually unaddressed. Clearly the urgency of this crisis must be conveyed.

As humanities teachers lack access to the mass media, the best way to communicate this concern may be through a strike. Though many questions need to be discussed (Who would strike? What would the demand be? To whom would it be issued?), it may be the best option. The loss of education that will occur if this happens, while regrettable, is a small price to pay to ensure the humanities will remain. It is time to say that we’ve had enough of seeing friends and colleagues leave behind studies they love; of signing contracts with so many responsibilities a long-term career is impossible; of reading about teachers being unable to afford basic necessities; of families being broken up because someone is following a calling that makes staying in one place difficult. Perhaps most of all, we must reject a system that refuses to allow students to explore their passion. It is time to see what a society lacking the humanities looks like, and ask whether we find it tolerable. Now is a good time; teacher strikes are already happening in many parts of the US and the UK. And strikes have been effective in many parts of the world.[2] While it is too early to tell if the Children’s Climate Strike will be effective, the fact that they’ve received international attention is an achievement itself. If we are not willing to pay the price necessary to ensure the humanities’ success, then this crisis will become one our children, grandchildren, and future ancestors will have to live with. And to paraphrase Greta Thunberg, that is something we must not accept.


[1] Many have realized this fact, as shown by articles in The AtlanticThe TelegraphThe Washington PostTimes Higher EducationHuffington PostForbesThe New RepublicThe Guardian, and New York Times. Even more conservative magazines like The National Review and Weekly Standard don’t advocate for ending the humanities, only de-politicizing them.

[2] As exemplified by the US Coal Strike of 1902, the 1946 Montrel Cottons Strike, the 1946 Pilbara strike in Australia, the US Steel Strike of 1959, the UK Miner’s Strike of 1972 and 1974, the UPS Strike of 1997, and the 2007 South African public servants’ strike.

Nathan Eckstrand is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Fort Hays State University and editor of the APA Blog. His primary research project at the moment is the question of how to conceive of revolution and resistance without making revolution advocate for one type of political state.

This piece was originally posted at the London School of Economics’ Higher Education Blog and the Blog of the APA.






2 responses to “Is it Time for the Humanities to Strike?”

  1. If the humanities strike, the universities may use that as an excuse to lay-off (or, less politely, to fire) faculty in the humanities.

    You talk of “the tragic state of the humanities.” But I’m not sure that it is so tragic. Yes, Shakespeare may be languishing, but Harry Potter is thriving. People rarely write long letters, but they are busy text messaging. Society and culture evolve, and the humanities must evolve along with those changes, or it will lose relevancy.

    No doubt you want to preserve that which is good. But “good” is not an absolute. If you want the classics to be preserved, then you need to do a marketing job to the next generation. You need to persuade them that the classics are good; to persuade them to appreciate and love the classics. And a strike will not achieve that.

  2. The humanities have been committing a long, slow suicide for several decades. Certainly some external factors have helped facilitate the decline – it is an assisted suicide of sorts, but still a suicide. Universities no longer have a wisdom-oriented culture in general. But for the most part, it is the people within the humanities themselves that are killing these disciplines.

    I dropped out before earning a philosophy PhD nearly 20 years ago and I fully understood this was happening at the time. I went on to work at an investment bank, then was a government economist and bond analyst, then helped create a financial technology company. Working in finance and economics through the financial crisis was insane, but I still tell people that leaving academic philosophy was hands-down the best career decision I made. It helped that I was good with logical reasoning in my career. And I do not regret spending so much time taking philosophy seriously. But academic philosophy as a career would have made me miserable on so many levels. College campuses are hell for rational and curious people.

    When I made that decision, I was mocked outright by several professors for leaving the morally pristine world of academia for a landscape dominated by money and materialism. I explained that I thought the materialism aspect of it was a wash. After all, universities had transformed from self-contained universes for the contemplative to places that essentially sell degrees. There is nothing morally pristine about generations saddled with debt that is cumulatively in the trillions of dollars. The university is about as morally serious as the financiers who were bundling and selling liar loans. From a financial perspective, they are literally doing the same thing and have the financial bubble to show for it.

    As a graduate student, I got to know many graduate students across universities and across disciplines who would not have been able to have a career in academia if they wanted to. No one in their department was honest with them about their prospects. Their departments were not only setting them up for failure, they were instrumental in the public humiliation of the discipline. Now when people outside of universities think of students in the humanities, they do not have an image of a public intellectual or intellectual of any sort in mind. They think of the guy pushing 35 who spent his early 20s working on a degree that landed him in a minimum wage gig. If not for Wall Street, that could have been me when I decided I couldn’t take university life anymore.

    It does not help that people associate “woke” behavior with humanities departments and humanities students – when even conferences for the classics devolve into someone getting thrown out of a panel discussion for not being sufficiently politically correct. The level of unprofessionalism and lack of collegiality on display on a regular basis is unreal, and it gets a lot of well-deserved attention. There is plenty of physical diversity on campuses now, but almost no intellectual diversity. People outside the university see this, and it means something to them. It makes them think about what path they should encourage their children to take in life. Humanities departments have become the stuff of satire. One can’t blame administrators for downsizing departments that have become reputational cost centers for their institution and reinvesting in areas that have replaced the humanities as sources of social prestige in the modern world for legitimately good reasons.

    If folks want to save the humanities, they don’t need to protest. They need to grow the hell up and start acting responsibly. They need to start showing an inkling of the wisdom they read so much about.