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
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
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.
Public Attitudes toward Literature
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-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
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%.
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).
Public Attitudes toward Fine Arts
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%.
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