A useful new issue of the MIT Press journal Daedalus focuses on the “relationship between the public and the academic humanities”. The editorial explains that, in U.S. public surveys, even a basic comprehension of the term “humanities” eludes many respondents. Yet when the public are questioned about the humanities defined as…

studying or participating in activities related to literature, languages, history, and philosophy [then] more than 80 percent of American adults hold very positive views.

This positive response has not prevented precipitous falls in student recruitment and graduation, especially in certain disciplines such as literature and history. Both have been especially badly hit in the USA…

the humanities have greatly diminished as measured by their share of students earning undergraduate degrees” […] “The reasons for the recent declines in humanities majors remain understudied [and] the specific causes of the recent declines in humanities majors remain murky.

That seems rather surprising. One would have thought that university administrators, at least, would be demanding to know such things.

The journal issue is not all woe and hand-wringing. Take the ‘Communication & Media Arts: Of the Humanities & the Future’ for instance. As a 1992 first-class degree holder in Communication & Information Studies I was pleased to hear that communication and journalism degrees are now positively booming…

the remarkable growth of communication studies in the academy. In the latest compilation of degrees conferred by American colleges and universities, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports 110,981 bachelor’s degrees [awarded 2017-18] […] communication enrolments are strong throughout the United States and a media-saturated world is greeting our students warmly upon graduation [while] “an astonishing variety of foundations, agencies, and corporations” are eager to provide project funding in communication research.

The article “Reframing the Public Humanities” also has a more positive stance…

looking at the richness and increasing diversity of public humanities work happening outside the academy […] the best versions of the public humanities — the real ‘grassroots’ humanities — are created by publics, not merely for them.

It offers the optimistic suggestion that universities…

aid local, “bottom-up” (that is, nonacademic and noninstitutional) versions of the humanities with grants. […] such bridges will be built through individual interactions long before we will see any kind of cultural shifts.

But therein lies the risk. If there’s money available and the initial mechanism is “individual interactions”, then the local smooth-talking grant-chasers will be schmoozing up at the university before the real grassroots people have even heard rumours about new funding. Perhaps better to run things differently, I’d suggest. Impartially give the funds to the genuine local grassroots, perhaps via non-political city or regional lottery funds, and then with the funds let them hire the academic or independent scholar who meets their requirements. Ideally with some form of long-lasting training legacy left behind after the academic has departed the project.

The chapter ‘Grassroots Museums’ surveys a positive set of historic U.S. institutions, while ‘The Emergence of Medical Humanities’ outlines another humanities success story…

The flourishing of medical humanities … This remarkable growth offers a counter-point to narratives of decline in the humanities. It is a story of growing relevance…

‘The Positive Humanities: A Focus on Human Flourishing’ suggests new fields around the understanding of what works for “the flourishing of humans”. Fine with me, just so long as “the range of perspectives required” doesn’t allow quack psychology and yogic crystal-waving to slip in through the back door. A reputation for rigorous debunking should be one hallmark of the field, I’d suggest, if it is to gain credibility.

The entire issue of Daedalus, which I bundled as a single PDF and then searched, has no discussion of “discovery” (discovery and reading of arts & humanities research via online search). Possibly a bit of a missed opportunity there, re: access to research by independent scholars, retired academics and the interested public, and the ways in which this might slowly change public perceptions over time. And not always change for good, perhaps, in terms of causing the brightest students to shy away from a humanities field before even applying to join it.