For nearly two centuries, learning at Harvard largely meant learning in the humanities. Other fields were taught--mathematics, for instance, and, increasingly in the nineteenth century, natural science and the emerging social sciences. With foresight, Harvard often led the change away from higher education centered almost exclusively in humanistic pursuits.
But the humanistic tradition remains vital. With the creation of Barker Center and the renovation of Boylston Hall, Harvard enjoys one of the best centers for humanistic study in the world, a circle of facilities centering roughly around Emerson's statue in Emerson Hall (philosophy) and embracing great libraries and art museums, centers of Afro-American, European, East Asian, and Literary and Cultural Studies, expository writing, and facilities for performing and studying the visual arts and music. How are they being used?
In the 1920s, about half of Harvard College students concentrated in the humanities, by 1970 less than one-third. During the mid 1990s the number fell to one-fifth, a drop of nearly 30 percent in just a few years. It has climbed again to one-quarter, but the proportion remains lower, for example, than at Princeton or Yale, or at many liberal-arts schools. In the early 1970s, 28 of every 100 men concentrated in the humanities; today that figure is 15 of 100, a drop apparently unmatched at any similar institution, including others that became coed. Graduate programs in the humanities have become smaller, a sensible and ethical response to the poor job market. Entering classes of English Ph.D. candidates, for example, once numbered 50 or more. By the mid 1970s, they had fallen to 25. Recently, the norm has been 15 or fewer.
Of 40 new faculty positions planned for the current campaign in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), half were originally targeted for the applied and natural sciences, 10 for social sciences, and 10 for the humanities. Since the early 1970s, no new permanent FAS faculty positions had been created, though the size of the faculty is not large compared with similar institutions. Despite strong efforts undertaken recently to cut FAS administrative personnel, growth in their ranks since the early 1970s exceeds 60 percent.
Within FAS, faculty salaries are kept on a broadly even keel and professors' fields do not enter the equation. Across the University as a whole, however, it is very hard not to conclude that humanists, whether in FAS, Education, or Divinity, find themselves at the lower end of the professorial salaries paid by the different schools and divisions in the University.
Teaching loads are notoriously hard to quantify and regulate. Responsible deans try to make sure that each faculty member pulls teaching weight. However, a 1985 survey of junior faculty in FAS revealed that untenured faculty in the humanities were teaching about 25 percent more than those in the sciences. (This may be mitigated by a new leave policy.) Whatever other teaching is done in labs, tutorials, individual doctoral direction, or reading courses, it's commonly recognized that tenured members in the humanities and most social sciences generally have a higher course load per year than most of their colleagues in the sciences. Many departmental courses in the humanities are now small enough (5 to 25 students) to be led exclusively by a faculty member, almost all of whom also conduct one individual undergraduate tutorial--and sometimes three or four--each year.
The College does not require any knowledge of a foreign language for admission. The foreign language requirement for graduation, expected to be completed by the end of the first year, is low by national standards. Among other ways, it may be fulfilled by a grade as low as D- in one first-year language course, or an AP score as low as 3. (FAS's Educational Policy Committee is reexamining the language requirement; see "Curricular Reform, More and Less," March-April, page 63.)
Although Harvard undergraduates in the humanities are heard to worry about the relevance and "utility" of their studies for the purpose of later employment, no statistical evidence indicates that Harvard-minted humanists have a tougher time later in the job markets, or that they become any less successful than their peers. Many go to medical or law schools; a number enter business, education, publishing, journalism, and the entertainment industry. A small percentage pursue graduate study in the humanities.