Has the Devaluation of the Humanities Contributed to the Election of Trump?

August 25, 2017

President Trump recently tried to eliminate the National Education Association and National Endowment for the Humanities. This proposal is another step in the already long process of marginalizing the humanities in society. According to Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, the effects of the devaluation of and growing disinterest in the humanities could jeopardise democracy itself. This a general tendency which can be observed in the academic context of several countries and particularly in the United States since the early 1980s. This raises the question: to what extent has such a shift served as a favourable factor to Trump’s election?

Recent evidence (collected between 2000 and 2012 in a group of thirty countries) shows that the number of students who get degrees in the humanities area (graduates and PhDs) does not correlate with the increase of higher education attendance in general. The negligence of these fields was more pronounced at the doctoral level, with some countries registering a double loss: a decrease both in relative and absolute terms.

In the line with the German sociologist Norbert Elias’ thinking, the complexity underlying the issue of adherence to higher education by scientific fields has been kept in mind throughout this research. The question is double-edged: on the one hand, which courses and vacancies are available and, on the other, what are the choices made by students? Thus, greater or less adherence to the humanities results from a set of choices, determined by a large number of individuals with a wide range of interdependent interests and, therefore, under constant possibility to influence and be influenced.

In other words, it is possible to observe an incomprehension of the usefulness of humanities both in society and particularly in those by whom it is governed. Even humanities academics have difficulty convincing others of its relevance, and, when in competition for resources against other fields, the humanities are passed over. As a result, a growing misadjustment between these departments and the universities has been developing.

It is not surprising that the neglect of the humanities has reduced the demand for degrees. From a symptom we move to a syndrome: the decrease of funding, both in education and research; the limitation of its space in the structure of a university, through elimination of courses and even of departments; the consequent devaluation of these subjects by human resources (through the reduction of vacancies, lower salaries, overtime in working hours); the reduction of specific resources in libraries; and, last but not least, the application of forms of evaluation of scientific activity that are not in line with the specificities of these domains. This process can degenerate into a vicious cycle of depreciation of the humanities.

In short, the humanities are held hostage to economic validation, inconsistent with the kind of knowledge they develop. In general, they are neither areas privileged by politicians nor sufficiently recognised by the academic community, and society adheres to this view. News from various parts of the world demonstrate that this problem, far from belonging to the past, remains prevalent.

But what is lost when the humanities are neglected in this way? In the study referred to above, despite the parallels with other sources, different discourses of value recognition in humanities’ higher education have been analysed. Positions of consensus have surfaced. The humanities, by their comprehensiveness, allow students to acquire a range of knowledge on the cultural heritage of humanity, necessary in many circumstances. In these learning processes, students activate a set of cognitive capacities that promote in themselves the habits of questioning and analysing what surrounds them, of communicating with quality, and of recognising that, for the same reality, different understandings are always possible. By putting themselves in others’ shoes (for example, when studying literature), those individuals can improve their social sensitivity and become more inclusive.

In contrast, the devaluation of the humanities makes it hard for society to impregnate itself with a knowledge that is marked by its cultural density, and with a way of thinking that encourages critical, open and socially innovative thought. Instead of the knowledge and the intangible social values promoted by this set of disciplines, a kind of ignorance is seeping into society.

In other words, are we now on fertile terrain to make our ears receptive to Trump’s rhetoric and his agenda? It was indeed in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected, that a period especially critical for the humanities began in the USA. Between his mandate and 2012 – the period covered in the research mentioned earlier – there was a very visible negative trend in funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities: save for rare exceptions, its evolution was marked by alternating periods of decreasing available budgets and periods of stagnation. Meanwhile, almost four decades have passed.


Teaser photo credit: Lecture hall. Image: Kai Schreiber, CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved.

Rosário Couto Costa

Rosário is an Associated Researcher at Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology (CIES-IUL), University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE-IUL), Lisbon, Portugal.

Tags: building resilient societies, critical thinking, democracy, the humanities