Americans and the humanities: a relationship that's more political than it seems

·2-min read
Visitors taking in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, September 3, 2020.
Visitors taking in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, September 3, 2020.

America's artistic community is holding its breath. While the cultural world crosses its fingers that Joe Biden's administration will defend public funding for the arts, a new national survey focuses on the American public's relationship with this struggling sector. While most of the people polled agreed that humanities teaching in schools is important, few of them turned out to be frequent visitors to art events and institutions in adulthood.

In fall 2019, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences surveyed more than 5,000 American adults about their engagement and attitudes towards various fields of the humanities, such as art, philosophy, literature and theology.

While almost all of those polled (97%) had engaged in at least one form of humanities activity sometime in the last year, only 11% said they attended art museums or art festivals often or very often. In comparison, almost one in two (46%) said they engage frequently with the humanities by watching history shows on TV or online.

The study also found that Americans with college degrees more commonly went on art-related outings than those with lower levels of education. The researchers observed the same phenomenon with revenue: those with the highest incomes were more likely to visit art museums or art events often or very often. More surprisingly, Americans in higher income categories were less likely to have participated in literary or poetry events in the last 12 months.

Black and Hispanic Americans were more likely than White Americans to have been among the most engaged with the humanities. In some cases, the researchers partially attribute this to higher rates of participation in religious study groups.

How humanities divide liberals and conservatives

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences research also highlights different attitudes towards the importance of humanities education in relation to people's political identity. While the majority of those polled (56%) agreed that the humanities "should be an important part of every American's education," only 48% of conservatives shared this opinion, compared to 70% of liberals.

The same is seen in attitudes towards the societal role of humanities in fostering cohesion and cultural understanding. Almost two thirds of American liberals (61%) agreed that humanities "help Americans understand others" compared to 33% of conservatives.

And while the majority of Americans polled have a positive view of humanities' role, more than one in five (22%) thought that the humanities were "not for people like me." A worrying figure at a time when museums and other cultural institutions are struggling to attract visitors following months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.