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By Daniel Fisher, Project Director, National Humanities Alliance
As campuses across the country fill with the renewed energy of the fall semester, it is a good time to pause to reflect on how we make the case for the value of the humanities at institutions of higher education. The question is particularly pressing in light of newly-released data from the Pew Research Center that shows that roughly six-in-ten Americans (61 percent) believe US higher education is “headed in the wrong direction.” Among a range of concerns, 73 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats believe that students are not being prepared to succeed in the workplace.
While the Pew survey was not focused on the humanities specifically, its results highlight the challenges that advocates for the humanities in higher education face today. To combat concerns about preparation for the workforce, we can and should show that studying the humanities cultivates critical skills that have led to success in a wide range of career paths—with strong earnings and high levels of job satisfaction. It is also important to show that the benefits of studying the humanities extend beyond the market—facilitating engaged citizenship and a life well-lived.
At the same time, the Pew survey results point to a more general need to reframe the conversation about the value and direction of higher education: to make the claim that higher education institutions serve not just individual students but also, and increasingly, their surrounding communities. Case-making for the humanities should include rich examples of how publicly-oriented humanities projects enrich life in the US: building and strengthening communities; creating innovative and practical learning experiences for students and people of all ages and backgrounds; and broadening our understanding of ourselves, our nation, and our world.
To highlight the public impact of the humanities in higher education, the National Humanities Alliance recently launched Humanities for All: a website that documents the past 10 years of publicly engaged humanities research, teaching, and programming in universities and colleges across the US. The website presents a cross section of over 1,400 projects, searchable, sortable, and illustrated with 51 in-depth profiles. When viewed together, these initiatives illustrate the broad impact of the humanities beyond higher education.
Humanities for All not only seeks to broaden narratives about the humanities in higher education but also to deepen the practice of public engagement in the humanities. We at NHA have a stake in encouraging more of this work, which provides more opportunities for members of the public to have humanities experiences and appreciate the significance of the humanities in higher education. In addition, when integrated into coursework, engaged humanities projects can provide meaningful and practical learning experiences that prepare students for the workforce. To this end, we present these examples as a resource for all who would like to begin or deepen their practice of public engagement.
Examples of engagement abound in anthropology, all of which can inform our humanities case-making and practice.
Consider Mukurtu, a content management system and digital access tool for cultural heritage, built for and in ongoing dialogue with indigenous communities. Developed and maintained at the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University, the free and open source platform is designed to meet the particular curatorial and access needs of indigenous peoples. Mukurtu offers the ability to provide differential access to community members and the general public and to create space for traditional narratives and knowledge labels that foreground Indigenous knowledge in the metadata of digitized cultural heritage materials.
The Undocumented Migration Project, directed by 2018 AAA Annual Meeting Program Chair Jason De León, is another great example. Based at the University of Michigan, the Undocumented Migration Project is a long-term anthropological study of undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States that uses ethnography, archaeology, and forensic science to better understand this clandestine social process.
We encourage you to visit Humanities for All to explore engaged humanities projects like these. To help us present the breadth of the field, Humanities for All also welcomes users to contribute new examples of publicly engaged humanities work in the US via the website’s submissions portal. More broadly, we would appreciate your consideration: How can Humanities for All inform your humanities case-making and practice?