Humanities on defensive, finds champions at Duke
Humanities research remains strong at Duke, despite the threat of funding cuts and political attacks in universities across the country.
Funding for the humanities has fallen since the 2008 recession and, in many major universities today, humanities research constitutes less than 1 percent of overall research funding. On top of declining financial support, widespread perceptions of the humanities as antiquated and attacks directed toward its perceived lack of practicality have increasingly put the humanities on the defense.
Nonetheless, the humanities is not without its champions. At Duke, its strongest supporters include Board of Trustees Chair David Rubenstein and President Richard Brodhead, who in 2013 co-chaired a report in defense of the humanities titled “The Heart of the Matter.” Financial support of the humanities at the University has remained steady over the past few years, and interest in the humanities has increased, said Dean of the Humanities Srivinas Aravamudan.
“People keep talking about the humanities in decline,” Aravamudan said. “I would argue Duke is a place where the humanities is getting more attraction.”
Aravamudan attributed the growth in interest to the increasing diffusion of the humanities into other fields.
Christina Chia, associate director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, noted that humanities research has become increasingly more interdisciplinary over the past few years—often combining research in other fields such as digital media, global health or biology.
“We want to encourage very capacious, open-ended humanities research,” Chia said. “There should be space for people to do pure research and for people who are interested in the intersection between neurobiology and literature.”
The University’s several humanities labs have recently undertaken several projects incorporating interdisciplinary research. Located in Smith Warehouse, the Wired! Lab on campus employs historical visualization technologies to study architectural and urban history.
“Humanities research increasingly uses digital technologies to interrogate topics,” said Elisabeth Naskin, Ph.D. student in art history and member of the Visualizing Venice project within the Wired! Lab. “These technologies require software and equipment as well as support staff and can require as much financial investment as traditional scientific research.”
Regardless, funding for humanities research continues to be dwarfed by funding for natural and social sciences research. In 2013, the University allocated $57 million in funding for research in the natural sciences, $6.8 million for research in the social sciences and $1.3 million in funding for research in the humanities, according to Vice Provost for Research Jim Siedow.
Despite the disparity, Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and associate vice provost for undergraduate education, called funding for the natural sciences and funding for the humanities as different as “apples and oranges.”
“There’s a real big disparity in the equipment and setting,” Baker said. “You don’t need laser beams in humanities research.”
Although private funding provides significant financial support, federal funding for the humanities is lacking, said John McGowan, director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Do I wish the government gave more funding in the humanities? Yes,” McGowan said. “If they gave 10 percent of what they give to the sciences that would be a huge increase. The number is now less than 1 percent.”
Nationwide, state governments typically provide the most grants for humanities research, awarding 118,445 grants between 2004 and 2012, according to Research Trends magazine. Federal governments followed at 72,528 grants, private sources gave out 64,049 grants and foundations awarded 60,238 grants.
Duke derives most of its funding for humanities from private sponsors and foundations. The humanities labs on campus, including the Wired! Lab, BorderWorks and Haiti Lab, are primarily funded by Humanities Writ Large grant from the Mellon Foundation. Other sources of funding include the Schiff Family Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But humanities continue to lag behind both the natural sciences and the social sciences in terms of popularity among students. Including first and second majors, there are between 500 and 550 declared humanities majors at Duke, as opposed to double that in the natural sciences, Aravamudan estimated. He added that 55 to 60 percent of students are in the social sciences, versus 25 to 30 percent natural science and 15 percent humanities.
In light of criticism targeted at the humanities over recent years, administrators continue to emphasize both tangible and non-tangible benefits of studying the humanities.
“A grounding in the humanities provides development in life skills: critical thinking, empathy, the ability to see multiple sides of an issue—these are all “soft” skills employers value greatly in the workplace, often even more so than technical skills,” Maria Wisdom, executive director of the UNC Institute of Arts and Humanities, wrote in an email Tuesday.
Even if studying the humanities does not provide immediate gains, the humanities is worth pursuing for its own sake, Aravamudan said.
“You can ask—why do we have a museum?” Aravamudan said. “Why don’t we just sell the paintings and do something useful with the money? Because it teaches us something about what being a human is. Being human is not just making money and solving problems. Being human is writing a poem. Being human is understanding what beauty is.”