The higher-education crisis in the humanities has a simple solution, which applies as well to airlines and movie theaters: fill the empty seats. Humanities majors accounted for less than 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2015, according to the Humanities Indicators Project. A July report from the Modern Language Association found that three-quarters of English departments had seen the number of majors dropping in the last five years. In an effort to boost enrollments, humanities departments are trying everything from digital curricula to sophisticated marketing plans.
To help professors, administrators, and advocates make the practical case for a humanities education, the Washington, D.C.–based National Humanities Alliance has issued a digital “Humanities Toolkit.” Written in the style of a PowerPoint presentation, the report offers “learning outcomes and performance metrics” that show how humanities degrees prepare students for a broad range of careers. It provides job and salary data, and it claims that employers “seek the skills that humanities majors develop”—for instance, those that make them effective managers. The message of the NHA’s relentlessly optimistic document: “The humanities cultivate fulfillment.”
Yet the toolkit makes not one reference to Milton, Beethoven, Bernini, Cervantes, Virgil, Ralph Ellison, or any other notable names; the great books, artworks, and compositions don’t figure in the presentation. The humanities instill critical thinking, workforce readiness, and empathy, the NHA insists—but those virtues get developed, presumably, in humanities course work, through the direct study of Thucydides, Dante, the Civil War, War and Peace, and so on. Why not highlight those things?
The NHA seems to believe that students need utilitarian justifications for studying fields like philosophy and art history. To market the humanities, on this view, we must play up money and success, and add a few sentimental effusions. It’s not working, though, as the poor enrollment figures underscore.
A better approach comes from Clemson University, where a Great Books–style initiative called the Lyceum Program is thriving. Each year, the program admits ten “scholars” out of high school, providing them a $2,500 annual tuition credit. The Lyceum offers eight courses per semester, taught by six professors. The students take the courses as a group, in a set sequence—for example, “Wisdom of the Ancients” for freshman year, “American Political Thought” for sophomore year, and so on. Participants then meet individually every week with their assigned tutors—professors who engage them in Socratic discussion of the readings. After completing the eight required courses, students earn a political science minor. A Lyceum certification may soon appear on transcripts and diplomas.
I met some of the students on Clemson’s campus in September. “I heard about this program in high school,” one told me, and “that’s why I came to Clemson.”
“Are the courses tough?” I asked.
“Definitely,” he said with a laugh, “the hardest ones I’ve ever taken.” The three others who joined us nodded. They kept citing the works that inspired them—Anna Karenina, The Closing of the American Mind, Cicero’s On Obligations, and a quote by C. S. Lewis that one took as his motto: “It’s not the remembered past, but the forgotten past that enslaves us.” One of the students was majoring in philosophy, two in English, and one in economics, but I sensed their camaraderie.
I asked if they really found those old books relevant in contemporary America. “Relevant to what?” one remarked, noting that other teachers might insert “pop culture references” to bring the material up to date, “but I don’t need them in the classroom.” Another found it “uplifting” to be in a class that offered a sanctuary from topical affairs.
The posters for the program set the tone. “IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES,” one announces at the top. Lyceum scholars, it says, “will graduate with a robust training in the essential ideas that form the foundation of free institutions, thus preparing them to move into careers in law, academia, policy making, and the business world.” This language sounds as though it was lifted from the Humanities Toolkit, but the rest of the poster gets back to the program’s true aim, listing the books that the scholars will read—including Plato’s Apology, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Another poster displays two stacks of books against a black background: Cicero, Tocqueville, Marx, Kant, Hume, Weber. The books (and authors) speak for themselves.
I asked the Lyceum’s founder, C. Bradley Thompson, about the program’s remarkable growth. “I never thought it would explode like this,” he admitted. “We began with a tiny marketing budget, but as soon as the materials went out, the calls started coming in.” Parents told him that they wanted their kids to get a decent classical education; bookish high schoolers told him that they wanted to find peers like themselves; and the admissions officers told him that more and more applicants, especially on the high end of the pool, were inquiring about the program. (Last year, 320 of the applicants had SAT scores of 1,400 or above, and 180 were at 1,500 or above, on a scale of 2,400.) “The administration is wholly supportive,” Thompson said. “We are now, along with the football program, one of the president’s main talking points.” When I brought up critical thinking, workplace skills, and other supposed humanities attractions, Thompson shook his head: the point of the program is to engage students with the big questions of life. “We live in such an unserious time,” he said. The students “long for participation in something great.” Or, as one of the program professors, J. Michael Hoffpauir, told me, “In these books, the students find themselves taken more seriously than they normally take themselves.”
Academia touts so many new initiatives, institutes, and majors these days that skepticism about any of them is warranted. But Thompson and his team have built a thriving humanities project, on traditional grounds. Clemson’s Lyceum Program is an exacting curriculum that honors the Western heritage—and students are hungry for it.