At the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, I was lucky enough to moderate a conversation between Earl Lewis, the outgoing President of the Mellon Foundation, and William D. “Bro” Adams, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The conversation had actually begun a few weeks earlier, at Mellon, an establishment whose modest exterior, discreetly tucked away on East 62nd street in New York and marked only with a tiny brass plaque, belies its power to move and shake. In 2016, Mellon disbursed grants in the amount of almost $300 million, while the NEH disbursed around $150 million, down from an all-time high of $400 million in 1978.

So, with almost half a billion dollars sloshing around from these two funders alone, why do we think the humanities are in crisis? And if so, what kind of crisis is it?

Here’s our conversation, courtesy of the AHA:

One interesting question raised in the hour we spent together was whether digital humanities, in which Mellon has invested many millions of dollars under Lewis’s leadership, has actually paid the dividends that it should in expanding public humanities, or whether it represents a discreet field in and of itself. This is a question I will pursue at another time in dialogue with my DH colleagues — some of whom are themselves beginning to be skeptical as to whether it holds up as a field.

Reflecting upon the larger conversation with Adams and Lewis, however, I would say that I noticed one thing I have not noticed before: that too often the health of the humanities is conflated with the health of higher education — and then,  too often the humanities are discussed in lofty language that tends to detach them from how higher education happens and who it is for.

One perspective that follows from this observation is that the diminution of a humanities constituency may be an effect of social reforms that brought new students into higher education after the 1960s.  In 2015, Peter Mandler, an English cultural historian, looked at falling humanities enrollments in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia over fifty years and noticed that the expansion of the university to include women and working-class people had altered the meaning and purpose of higher education. Democratization, he argued, meant that universities had to adapt their offerings to what a more diverse population wanted from a college degree, and what it needed from that degree in a more competitive professional environment. Traditional humanities curricula declined, not just as a percentage of enrollments and courses offered, but also because new majors emphasized more vocational paths. Furthermore, Mandler argued, the lowering of barriers to women in particular meant that this traditional humanities constituency now had access to careers that demanded another kind of undergraduate education entirely.

A second perspective does not argue against the fact of this democratization, but against the notion that these new university clients needed the humanities any less than the old ones did. While this is part of the language that liberals speak today — that the effect of the humanities is timeless, and not quantifiable, conservatives tend to view this sentiment as a loose commitment to classic knowledge.  Also in 2015, following the release of The Heart of the Matter, a report issued by the Academy of Arts and Sciences that year, Gilbert T. Sewall grumbled in the National Review (October 13, 2015) that the humanities had been stripped of their cultural authority. It was not the number of college enrollments that represented a crisis, it was that the humanities’ stature as knowledge had been badly reduced by “lofty” and “empty language” that was designed to reassure the public that the humanities were not elitist.

By not even meeting its conservative critics part way, Sewall argued, the liberal authors of the report had also ignored the reason that the humanities’ intellectual authority had diminished over time: humanities faculties had retreated from their special place as guardians of elite culture. “The looming cul-de-sacs of postmodernism, diversity, and revisionism identified by Allan Bloom, Christopher Lasch, and Daniel Bell a generation ago? Not here,” Sewall noted.

No hint of the interior life or refinements of character, morality, and ethics that have bound humanistic thought since the Renaissance sullies these bright and glossy pages. Appreciation or even acknowledgment of classical antiquity, European philosophy, Christian theology, or Anglo-American law or literature is absent. Western civilization is not “the heart of the matter.” Plato and Aristotle, Ovid and the Old Testament, Copernicus and Newton? Gibbon, Johnson, or Austen? Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche? The Tao Te Ching? No, nothing.

Was Sewall’s point merely the advancement of cultural elitism? Only partially. A quarter century after the attacks on Great Books courses at places like Columbia and, most famously, Stanford University, liberals had simply declared victory in the culture wars without actually stating what had been won, why, or how that victory represented a preservation of humanities disciplines rather than their displacement as core university curricula.

In contrast, intellectual historian Tim Lacy has argued that the clearest relevance of the humanities is concrete and real: a humanities education, whether a student majors in a humanities discipline or not, infuses other forms of education with greater value. As Lacy notes in a 2016 blog post:

If corporations and businesses are primarily concerned with the exchange of value, and measuring commodities for the purpose of exchange, it is the humanists who help evaluate the values being exchanged. Businesses, smart ones that is, already recognize the value of humanistic and liberal arts thinking in what they do. They already hire liberal arts majors in various positions. Those businesses know creativity and acts of creation precede exchange and measurement.

Beyond creativity, humanists have the ability to invest certain existing commodities with value. The fields of sales and marketing know this. Do businesses know that humanists could, or should, be key team members in those endeavors? A liberal arts education inculcates the ability to discern value and explain it. That education provides the powers of persuasion needed to communicate areas of value to the uninformed, to the value-seekers.

An education the humanities provides the breadth of vision that also matters in leadership positions. The liberal arts provide one with a sense of the complexity, context, and contingency that are inherent in human relations. A good leader will think in those terms while managing a team. Those judgments negotiate the meaning of projects for a team, and add value to the institution.

This, I think, is an interesting counterpoint to Sewall’s argument, which implies that the value of the humanities is lodged the preservation of a set of cultural standards, priorities, and preservation agendas that stand outside of value systems altogether, and thus cannot be measured against the emergence of new knowledge product or collapsed into new forms of education sanctioned and commodified by the university for the benefit of an evolving professional middle class.

How can we have a crisis in the humanities if we all agree — foundations, federal agencies, liberals and conservatives — that the humanities are a core practice in which we are willing to invest? In which case — is the crisis in the humanities simply another way of avoiding a deeper look at the crisis of the university itself?

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.