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Part V. The Humanities in American Life

Section D. Public Attitudes toward the Humanities

NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators, http://HumanitiesIndicators.org".
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Indicator V-15 Public Attitudes toward Literature
Indicator V-16 Public Attitudes toward Fine Arts

The indicators presented in this section attempt to shed some light on Americans’ perceptions of the humanities and on their influence on American society. How do Americans feel about the humanities and those charged with transmitting humanistic skills and knowledge to the nation’s young people? What effect do they believe the humanities have on individuals and communities? Both questions involve important and complex issues of value. Neither can begin to be adequately addressed through existing data.

To be sure, participation data, such as those gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (and presented in the previous section), are suggestive with regard to the extent to which Americans value humanistic institutions such as historic sites and art museums (see Indicator V-13, Historic Site Visits,; and Indicator V-14, Art Museum Attendance). However, more-direct measures of public attitudes are needed not only to help explain why Americans utilize these institutions to the extent they do, but also because such measures are critical to an understanding of the place of the humanities in American life. Nonetheless, a comprehensive, ongoing data collection program that can provide such information does not exist. Consequently, the indicators in this section rely on the limited data on the topic obtained through the General Social Survey (GSS), a survey of American values that has been regularly fielded since 1972 by the NORC at the University of Chicago.

Although the GSS is a valuable source of information on changes in American attitudes over the last several decades, most of its items relating to the humanities have not been part of the core survey. As a result, much of the GSS data pertaining to Americans’ attitudes toward the humanities are at least ten years old and are available for only one or two years. These data therefore offer only a limited perspective on American attitudes toward the humanities.

In spite of these drawbacks, the data do provide some sense of Americans’ views on such issues as the suppression of controversial texts and the value of what have traditionally been seen as literary classics, and in this way they touch on a few of the debates that have surrounded the humanities in the last few decades. At the same time, however, because the data are so limited, they are also a commentary on how little is known about current attitudes toward the humanities and on the need to gather additional information on this complex subject.

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Indicator V-15 Public Attitudes toward Literature
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Figure V-15d, that dealing with opinions about censorship, was updated 8/2/2013 with data for 2010–2012.

This indicator addresses questions concerning Americans’ view of the value and influence of literature by presenting responses to four items that were included in the GSS at various times, beginning in 1972. The extent of the data varies by item. One item, concerning the suppression of texts, appeared regularly from 1972 to 2008, but others appeared only once or twice during this period.

The first item gauges Americans’ belief that the sorts of texts on which much humanities education focuses are valuable and contribute to young people’s ability to function in contemporary society. The results of the survey show that in 1993, 38% of Americans agreed with the statement “High schools and colleges make students spend too much time reading ‘classics’ that have little relevance in today’s world” (Figure V-15a). Whether fewer or more Americans feel this way today and whether events of the past two decades, including the rise of the Internet and electronic media, have influenced opinions of the value of the “classics” is, unfortunately, unknown.

Figure V-15a, Full Size
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Figure V-15b presents another perspective on Americans’ ideas about literature, this time focused on the extent to which ethnic and cultural differences were felt to be salient to literary meaning and value. In 1993, over three-quarters of American adults believed that certain works could be considered universal in their appeal, capturing elements of the human experience that transcend ethnic or cultural differences. Regrettably, without data for a more current year, it is not possible to gauge the extent to which this perception has changed in light of the debate about social as well as literary values that has taken place in the United States over the last two decades.

Figure V-15b, Full Size
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The next item, concerning Americans’ confidence in humanities educators’ judgment as to which texts young people ought to read, is more informative insofar as it appeared twice on the GSS, in 1993 and 1998 (Figure V-15c). In 1993, 63% of Americans reported that they trusted high school and college teachers to select readings for their students. Five years later, however, distrust had intensified, with the percentage of Americans indicating strong disagreement increasing from 5% to slightly more than 8%.

Figure V-15c, Full Size
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Weighing conflicting points of view to arrive at reasoned conclusions is a key humanistic competency, and Americans’ willingness to permit the public dissemination of texts that they find personally objectionable can serve as one marker of this capacity. In 1973, the GSS started asking whether survey respondents would favor the removal of books espousing particular beliefs if some people in their community suggested that such books be eliminated from the public library. As Figure V-15d indicates, by 2012 Americans were less supportive of suppressing most types of texts than they were in the early 1970s, even though a nonnegligible minority of Americans still supported censorship of this kind. The greatest decline, 24.2 percentage points, was in the share of Americans willing to suppress books advocating homosexuality.

The exception to this trend concerns books asserting the inferiority of African Americans, toward which the level of disapproval has been almost constant over time. At no point from the mid-1970s to 2012 was the percentage of American adults favoring the removal of such books from public libraries statistically different than the percentage recorded in 1976 (the first year in which such data were collected).

Figure V-15d, Full Size
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Indicator V-16 Public Attitudes toward Fine Arts
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One challenge that the humanities have traditionally faced in the United States is the perception that they are the purview of cultural elites, produced by and for a select few. This has been the case particularly for the fine arts, yet accurate measures of public opinion are extremely scarce. The only reliable data comes from the GSS. The GSS data are limited, however, because the topic of the fine arts has appeared only twice in recent years, in 1993 and 1998, and the items about art and popular culture amounted to only three. Making meaningful generalizations about American attitudes toward the arts during those years on the basis of such limited data is difficult, and saying anything about current attitudes is impossible. However, the results of the survey do indicate that in the 1990s a shift occurred in the degree to which Americans felt that the fine arts were accessible. The decade also saw an increasing appreciation for the artistic merits of popular culture.

In 1993, over 49% of Americans either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Only a few people have the knowledge and ability to judge excellence in the arts” (Figure V-16a). By 1998, however, a significant shift had occurred toward the view that more than just a handful of people have the competence to assess the quality of artistic production. While there was a small increase in the number of people strongly agreeing with the statement above, the percentage of respondents expressing basic agreement had dropped by almost 10 points at the same time that the percentage of those who strongly disagreed had risen from 9.4% to 16.7%.

Figure V-16a, Full Size
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Further evidence of the fact that the American public was coming to feel less alienated from “high culture” in the 1990s was the decrease in the proportion of Americans expressing derisive opinions toward contemporary art. Betrween 1993 and 1998, the level of agreement with the statement, “Modern painting is just slapped on: a child could do it,” declined by approximately 10 percentage points (Figure V-16b). Earlier in the decade, Americans demonstrated that they did not feel that the traditional fine arts were the sole repository of beauty and meaning, with 95% of adults asserting in 1993 that artistic excellence could also be found in popular and folk culture (Figure V-16c).

Figure V-16b, Full Size
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Figure V-16c, Full Size
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