Disrupting the Narrative: Why Did This Institution Net a Huge Humanities Gift?

Conventional wisdom can be comforting in the philanthropy world. But at what point should we stop accepting it at face value and ask if the dynamic has irrevocably changed?

Take this issue of the humanities in the realm of higher education. Word on the street is that its days are numbered. A often-cited New York Times piece from February looked at nationwide calls to promote STEM education and cut liberal arts funding. Responding to market demand, at least 15 states offer some type of bonus or premium for certain "high-demand degrees," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Spoiler alert: 20th Century French Existentialism is not, alas, a "high-demand degree.")

Related: Can STEM-Inspired "Creative Research" Make the Arts More Impactful?

Heck, even Marco Rubio got into the act, infamously (and correctly) reminding college students that "you can decide whether it's worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major, because the market for Greek philosophers is tight."

And yet, despite all of this, we continue to see big, transformative gifts to the humanities.

Take recent news out of Baltimore, where a $10 million gift through the Alexander Grass Foundation aims to support humanities research and education at Johns Hopkins University. The gift, the largest ever to support the humanities at Hopkins, will promote "literature, art, philosophy, history, and other cultural studies in Baltimore and the wider community." 

Yep, you read that right. We said "philosophy."

The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute will serve as the programming sponsor for 10 humanities departments in the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, other departments in humanistic social sciences, and related centers and programs. In addition, the institute will hold scholarly meetings and public events, support student fellowship and undergraduate research projects, and boost interdisciplinary projects. 

(We also couldn't help but notice that the terms "blended learning" and "online learning" were nowhere to be found in the extensive Hopkins press release devoted to the benefits of a solid liberal arts education.)

Now, we know what you're thinking. First, yes, it's so totally cool that the foundation in question sounds like it came straight out of a Dickens novel. Alexander Grass. A nice touch.

Secondly, and more importantly, didn't the Alexander Grass Foundation get the memo? Sorry, gramps, but humanities are yesterday's news. You can't land a high-paying job with an art history degree. HR departments don't care about your 200-page dissertation on David Hume. The future is automated, data-driven, robotic. Ones and zeros, baby.

So what gives? 

Believe it or not, it turns out that the foundation sees the intrinsic value in a humanities education. "Really, the study of the humanities is at the basis of everything in life, and sometimes it gets short shrift," said Elizabeth Grass Weese, 59, a former Baltimore resident and the daughter of Alexander, the philanthropist and founder of Rite Aid Corp., who passed away in 2009. "What I really love about the institute is its cross-disciplinary nature, which illustrates the scope of the humanities. The opportunities will ultimately broaden students’ options in life." 

Weese, of course, is correct, and she isn't alone. As our extensive coverage of Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's big vision for the humanities suggests, other grantmakers understand the humanities' qualitative and intangible role in preparing students for the real world—and they're putting up big money to support it. 

Related: How Is Mellon's Big Vision for the Humanities Shaping Up?

Which leads us to our final point. Perhaps the gift to Hopkins represents the beginning of a paradigm shift. To us, it has seemed as if proponents of the humanities have been debating its value on the enemy's turf and from an inherently defensive position—that is, trying to equate the value of an English degree with that of a computer science degree. 

But it's an apples to oranges debate, especially when the metric of success is "post-graduation salary." When armed with pure numbers and benchmarking surveys from temp agencies, it's an argument that humanities proponents can't win. And so we hope the essence of the debate will continue to evolve as foundations continue to appreciate the "soft" benefits associated with critical thinking, ethics, critical thought, philosophy, and the perils of the dreaded passive voice. 

In short, the rise of STEM education may be good for students' pocketbooks, but the Alexander Grass Foundation gift to Hopkins reminds us that the humanities are good for students' souls.