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Academy of Arts and Sciences Launches Humanities Indicators Prototype

posted by Christopher Howard — Jan 07, 2009

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems, has unveiled the Humanities Indicators, a prototype set of statistical data about the humanities in the United States that is organized in collaboration with a consortium of national humanities organizations.

“Until now the nation has lacked a broad-based, quantitative analysis of the status of the humanities in the United States,” said Leslie Berlowitz, chief executive officer of the American Academy and project codirector. “We need more reliable empirical data about what is being taught in the humanities, how they are funded, the size of the workforce, and public attitudes toward the field. The Humanities Indicators are an important step in closing that fundamental knowledge gap. They will help researchers and policymakers, universities, foundations, museums, libraries, humanities councils, and others answer basic questions about the humanities, track trends, diagnose problems, and formulate appropriate interventions.”

CAA worked closely on the Humanities Indicators project since its inception and eagerly looks forward to the essays that will interpret the first set of statistical information. CAA provided information on hundreds of art-history departments at colleges, universities, and art schools that were then contacted to participate in filling out questionnaires to add to the statistics. For the first time, statistical information on academic art history and art museums will be represented in separate categories instead of being summarized (as in the US Department of Education and US Department of Labor statistics) in the general arts category.

Visual art in higher education and elsewhere, however, was not considered. Linda Downs, CAA executive director, notes that “the visual arts are only represented by art history in the indicators because the American Academy chose to follow the current definition of the humanities used by the National Endowment of the Humanities. I have argued for the inclusion of statistical information on artists, and the academy has promised that they will include visual artists in next year’s collection of statistics. Visual-arts statistics are not kept separate from performing-arts statistics by the Education or Labor Departments. So, any step in this direction will be useful for CAA.”

The Humanities Indicators reveal that:

  • The picture of adult literacy in the US is one of polarization. Among Western industrialized nations, we rank near the top in the percentage of highly literate adults (21 percent) but also near the top in the proportion who are functionally illiterate (also 21 percent)
  • Public debate about teacher qualifications has focused mainly on math and science, but data reveal that the humanities fields suffer an even more glaring dearth of well-prepared teachers. In 2000, the percentage of middle (29 percent) and high school (37.5 percent) students taught by a highly qualified history teacher was lower than for any other major subject area. The definition of “highly qualified” is a teacher who has certification and a postsecondary degree in the subject they teach
  • Humanities faculty are the most poorly paid. They also have a higher proportion of part-time, nontenured positions compared to their counterparts in the sciences and engineering. But almost half of humanities faculty indicate that they are “very satisfied” with their jobs overall
  • Since the early 1970s, the number of Americans who support the banning of books from the public library because they espouse atheism, extreme militarism, communism, or homosexuality decreased by at least 11 percentage points, although from 26 percent to 34 percent of the public would support banning some type of book. In the case of books advocating homosexuality, the decline was a particularly significant 20 percentage points
  • Recent federal legislation identifies certain languages as “critical need languages” (Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Bengali, Turkish, and Uzbek, among others), but the data show these languages are rarely studied in colleges and universities. At the same time, there has been a substantial increase in the number of students studying Chinese
  • Charitable giving to arts and cultural organizations grew between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s before leveling off. But little public- or private-sector funding for the humanities goes to academic research. This trend undermines both academia and the public since public institutions rely on humanities scholars to provide much of the knowledge on which these activities are based
  • The number of American adults who read at least one book in the previous twelve months decreased from 61 percent to 57 percent in the decade between the early 1990s and the early 2000s. The greatest rate of decline (approximately 15 percent) occurred among 18-to-24-year-olds

The project collected and analyzed data from existing sources to compile a prototype set of seventy-four indicators and more than two hundred tables and charts, accompanied by interpretive essays covering five broad subject areas. The indicators will be updated as new information becomes available, including data from a survey administered last year to approximately 1,500 college and university humanities departments. The academy views the indicators as a prototype for a much-needed national system of humanities data collection.

Among the organizations collaborating with the academy on the effort are the the College Art Association, American Council of Learned Societies, the American Academy of Religion, the American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, the Association of American Universities, the Federation of State Humanities Councils, the Linguistic Society of America, the Modern Language Association, and the National Humanities Alliance.

Update: Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has the first review of the Humanities Indicators, with comments from readers.

Filed under: Advocacy, Education