Stearns on How Universities Value (or Don't) the Humanities

Peter Stearns, University Professor and Provost Emeritus, has published an essay in Perspectives, the magazine of the American Historical Association. Titled "What Do We Mean by 'Value'? It’s Time to Challenge the Carnegie Classifications," the article argues universities need to change how they categorize and assess research.

Here is the beginning of the essay:

It’s no secret that these are difficult days for the humanities. Evaluations of higher education increasingly privilege the incomes of graduates, and while these measures do not uniformly favor STEM (contrary to some belief), the data certainly tend to downgrade humanities graduates. Though they typically do earn less, they are far from unemployed, as the myth would have it (see for a corrective). Yet political candidates take easy potshots at humanities programs, playing off and encouraging a sense of low utility.

Obviously, in this context, humanists worry, but we also fight back. We know we teach skills and insights vital to a healthy society, beginning with critical thinking. We know we add knowledge—for example, about how the present has emerged from the past. We know that without our disciplines and kindred social sciences, American society would lose its capacity to evaluate and address a host of crucial issues.

Amid this kind of debate, it seems one specific target has gone unnoticed: the essential neglect of humanities research in one of the most hallowed American classification systems, the Carnegie ratings, now administered by Indiana University. It’s time to initiate a discussion of alternatives, complex as this might be.