eighteenth century, 18th century, humanistic study, interdisiplinarity, relevance of the humanities


Arts and Humanities | European History | Higher Education


While the percentage of humanities majors has long been on the decline, the more recent experiences of the Great Recession, its aftermath, and the outbreak of Covid-19 have introduced a variety of daunting and intertwined challenges to scholars in these disciplines. Financial and occupational anxieties surrounding higher education threaten not only to crowd out humanities departments but also to alter the very understanding of what higher education is. While some students attend college to prepare themselves for engaged citizenship or to learn in a community, many also attend as a pathway to employment and expect a prompt return on investment. Moreover, state-level disinvestment contributes to higher tuition fees and student debt, heightening an emphasis on immediate job outcomes to the detriment of the humanities, which typically do not offer study-to-job pipelines. Such financial and legislative divestment can lead to falling enrollments within and cuts to humanities departments, simultaneously reflecting and confirming the public perception that humanistic study is impractical.

While humanists have long sought to stem this decline, scholars of the eighteenth century may be uniquely positioned to innovate pragmatic solutions because of the historical period we study. First, eighteenth-century Europe experienced political and economic phenomena that parallel trends in our own era. In England alone, eighteenth-century society faced sharp financial downturns, rising inequities, unfit political leaders, moribund statutes, and new technologies that abetted entrenched class structures. Second, scholars of the eighteenth century have a model of interdisciplinarity and innovation in Enlightenment philosophes, who were not siloed within discrete disciplines as we are today and so were more able and willing to think across epistemological categories.

By drawing upon our knowledge of eighteenth-century culture, the following essays seek both to open an inquiry into the decline of the humanities and to provide potential solutions to it. They grew out of a roundtable discussion held at the March 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. In publishing this forum, we hope to continue the expansive and ambitious conversation begun in Orlando, Florida. As scholars of the eighteenth century, we seek to apply the interdisciplinary insights drawn from our research to help strengthen the humanities, especially within those academic institutions that have neither expansive funds nor research-intensive aims. As these authors argue, today’s humanists face extremely high stakes but also abundant possibilities.


License: This article is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Contributor Biographies:

Katherine Gustafson is an Assistant Professor at Indiana University Northwest where she teaches courses in the Department of English, the Women and Gender Studies Program, and the Medical Humanities Minor. She has published essays in Eighteenth Century Fiction, Essays in Romanticism, and The Burney Journal. Gustafson is currently working with Suzanne Barnett and Jared McGeough on a scholarly collection of William Godwin’s children’s books for Romantic Circles. She is also finishing her first book on the relationship between the eighteenth-century novel and the rise of modern ideas about adolescence.

Heather King is Professor of English at the University of Redlands. Her recent publications include “‘Domestic Virtues and National Importance’: Sailors, Commerce, and Virtue in Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and The Wealth of Nations,” “Pictures of Women in Frances Burney’s Cecilia and Camilla,” and “Adapting Austen in the Classroom” with Nora Nachumi.

Scott Richard St. Louis is Program Manager in the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University, where he is responsible for the implementation of a civic education project launched with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a 2016 recipient of the Glenn A. Niemeyer Award, the university’s highest academic honor for students and faculty. His articles have previously appeared in Digital Literary Studies and The Michigan Historical Review. He is one of fewer than two dozen editors globally for the Directory of Open Access Journals, set up and originally maintained by Lund University in Sweden.

Linda Zionkowski is the Samuel and Susan Crowl Professor of Literature and Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department at Ohio University. Her most recent book is Women and Gift Exchange in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Burney, Austen (2016). With her collaborator Miriam Hart, she has published several essays and articles on the musical culture of Jane Austen’s novels and is at work on a collection entitled “Women and Music in Georgian Britain.” She is also co-editor, with Cynthia KlekarCunningham, of a volume entitled “Displacement in the Texts of the Long Eighteenth Century, 1660–1815.”

Original Citation

Gustafson, Katherine and Scott Richard St. Louis. "Forum Introduction: Defending the Humanities—Making a Case for Eighteenth-Century Studies." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 49, 2020, p. 361-364. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/sec.2020.0002.