Highsmith, Carol M., Untitled (1946). Library of Congress
At a moment when state auditors are scrutinizing higher education budgets with an eye to trimming humanities majors and offerings out of existence, we’d do well to pause and reflect on the career of the distinguished educator Ruth Simmons.
In her 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Simmons addressed the impact of her training as a scholar of romance languages and literatures on her career path. Recalling her years as a PhD student in the 1970s, Simmons recounted the influence of the sixteenth-century French author Joachim du Bellay and his 1549 treatise, Defense and Illustration of the French Language, on her thinking about historical change.
The case he made for French as a poetic language, against those who disdained it because it wasn’t Latin or Greek, helped her to appreciate “the value of minority cultural expression.” Simmons saw continuities between du Bellay and later Francophone writers like Aimé Césaire, which fortified her arguments for African American literature as a legitimate scholarly field in those early days.
Simmons went on to an illustrious career as a scholar-administrator. Among her most notable accomplishments was her appointment as president of Brown University—the first Black woman to lead an Ivy League institution—where in 2003 she established a committee to study the relationship of Brown to the transatlantic slave trade.
Five years into her retirement, she returned to the role of president, this time at Prairie View A&M, one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. There, she raised money for scholarships and has helped to guarantee the fiscal soundness of the institution as it heads toward its 150th anniversary.
Simmons’s lecture landed as news broke that language instruction is being slashed in connection with budget shortfalls at the University of West Virginia—making Morgantown the most spectacular example to date of the vulnerability of the humanities to top-down crisis-management.
Simmons’s example reminds us of the payoffs of strengthening university investments in world languages and literatures, which Rebecca Walkowitz, dean of humanities at Rutgers, argues are modes of basic research.
The analogy Simmons drew between quests for inclusion in one time and place and similar struggles in her own time was mediated by a language different from her own. This is basic humanities methodology, applied. In this instance it became the basis for a life’s work dedicated to institutional transformation at scale.
Make no mistake. The dismantling of language and literature departments puts research and teaching grounded in scholarly expertise out of reach for generations of students pursuing a range of subjects which depend on linguistic knowledge—classics, philosophy, history, film studies, and Latinx studies, as well as science and technology when English is not the dominant medium.
But Simmons’s embrace of du Bellay is more than a data point about the value of humanities mindsets. She’s making a case for the humanities as a theory of change.
“Theory of Change” is a results-oriented evaluation framework often used by NGOs. It maps the connections between activities and goals in order to guide teams so that the interventions they want to make are as effective as possible. Emily Ardell, a principal at the social impact consulting group Four Corners Global, calls it a tool that “creates pathways for systems change.”
Simmons’s case for the study of romance languages enacts a humanities-based theory of change. It’s outcome-oriented, but in a nonlinear and nonpredictive way. It speaks directly to the experimental cultures of innovation at the heart of the research university. It resonates with the applied-knowledge thinking that pushes students toward STEM.
Yet it’s illegible in the immediate-results-at-scale orientation that drives budget priorities across higher education today.
In West Virginia, fiscal planning that banked on strategies for student recruitment, while overspending on capital projects, failed in ways that will be felt for years to come. The collapse of humanities programs in U.S. colleges and universities more generally is the result of flawed modeling and poor risk management at the top.
Humanities fields pay a disproportionate price for these theories of change gone wrong, intensifying the perception that they are the bad risk.
As for risk and reward, how is the study of languages and literatures any more of a gamble than STEM? Pay differentials are clearly an issue, to be taken seriously given high rates of student debt. Meanwhile, statistics just released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences indicate that humanities graduates have the same chance on the job market as business and engineering majors nationally.
The rate of unemployment for all of them is 3 percent, thanks in part to the overall difference any college degree makes to job attainment.
No one should have to gamble when it comes to higher education. But everyone should understand, as Simmons does, that education itself is a theory of change. It involves opportunities, risks, payoffs, and unlooked-for outcomes.
This is true for the humanities no more or less than for any field students choose to pursue. You just never know how sixteenth-century French literature might motivate you, if you let it.
Antoinette Burton is Professor of History and Director of the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and the University of Illinois System.