Can AI be a key to a resurgence in relevance for the humanities … and for higher ed?

6 Ways Toward Greater Relevance

Wonder … Curiosity … Inquiry … Awe … Imagination …

The words cascaded down the futurist’s slide deck in RHB’s shared Zoom box, highlighting things that artificial intelligence can’t replace … at least not yet.

I note, with a blend of amusement and concern, that the phrase “artificial intelligence” in the preceding paragraph was helpfully completed by Google docs’ AI after I typed “artif”. I further note that the next use of the phrase was autocompleted after only “ar.”

(The AI is not only getting faster, it speaks pirate.)


Recently the RHB team was treated to a thought-provoking session—the one in which those cascading words appeared—led by Ohio State professor David J. Staley, who, as a historian and futurist possesses perhaps the greatest career mashup ever. His conversation with us centered on the impact of AI on humanity in general and higher ed in particular.

There were nods to the past:

  • 26 years ago the IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue, defeated then-world chess champion Garry Kasparov, the first time a computer beat a reigning chess champion in history.
  • Almost eight years ago, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, then the best human Go player.

And peeks at the future:

  • We will likely see automation affect the higher ed job market, where careers in finance and accounting are significantly more exposed to risk than manufacturing jobs.
  • A more realistic and probable future is learning how to work with AI, not to defend against it. (Within days of Staley’s presentation to RHB, a story appeared in Inside Higher Ed, reporting on a Cengage study showing that 60 percent of employers indicated that “new hires will need to strengthen or develop digital skills due to AI.”)
  • Bestowing knowledge and skills upon students will not be enough for higher ed to thrive–or for its students to find employment. Higher ed needs to cultivate attributes that are uniquely human in its students.

As an English major who started an enrollment career at a Jesuit university powered by a humanities core before leading the enrollment team at a small liberal arts college, I have been reading with increasing dismay in recent years about the erosion of trust in higher ed, the devaluing of the humanities—literature, history, philosophy, religion, languages, the arts—and steep declines in humanities enrollment, highlighted starkly in “The End of the English Major,” a New Yorker story published earlier this year that included this grim recounting: 

“According to Robert Townsend, the co-director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project … from 2012 to 2020 the number of graduated humanities majors at Ohio State’s main campus fell by forty-six per cent. Tufts lost nearly fifty per cent of its humanities majors, and Boston University lost forty-two. Notre Dame ended up with half as many as it started with, while SUNY Albany lost almost three-quarters. Vassar and Bates—standard-bearing liberal-arts colleges—saw their numbers of humanities majors fall by nearly half. In 2018, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point briefly considered eliminating thirteen majors, including English, history, and philosophy, for want of pupils … [American scholars] have begun to wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before.”

In that last line, I hear a call back to those cascading words on Staley’s slide and see a reason for hope in a return to relevance for the humanities.

Wonder … Curiosity … Inquiry … Awe … Imagination …

These are the ingredients of great questions, foundations of creativity, pathways to ethics.

They’re what led humans to imagine a world with artificial intelligence—first in speculative works of fiction; now in nascent works of reality.

They offer, in a time of rapid discovery and development, the lenses of “should we?” for every vision of “could we?”

They are what can help humans develop a world where artificial intelligence can enhance the human experience, not replace it.

They are at the core of the humanities, a word whose very essence, “human,” is a reminder of what they elevate.

In his conversation with us, Staley, who also specializes in university design, asserted that, in this new economy, it is insufficient for higher ed merely to impart knowledge and skills; now, more than ever, colleges need to cultivate the “uniquely human” attributes that AI cannot achieve. He predicts a coming “cognitive divide,” a split in the labor force between those who have been well-educated to interface with algorithms and those who have not.

It is insufficient for higher ed merely to impart knowledge and skills; now, more than ever, colleges need to cultivate the “uniquely human” attributes that AI cannot achieve.

In post-World War II America, the GI Bill and its education benefits changed the game for higher ed by fueling the growing needs of the American economy through new knowledge and skills development.

Today, as American demographics are shifting along with educational preferences, the rise of AI presents colleges and universities with another significant opportunity to reshape themselves to serve the greater good. How can students be equipped not just with the skills to leverage AI in their studies and lives after graduation, but to deepen and broaden their abilities to apply wonder, curiosity, inquiry, awe and imagination in an ever-changing world?

6 Ways Toward Greater Relevance

At RHB we inspire colleges and universities toward greater relevance, and we see this moment for higher ed as one of crisis, but not the flashing chiron-at-the-bottom-of-your-24-hour-news-channel kind. This is the original flavor of crisis, the kind we read and wrote about in literature and history: a decisive turning point where things can go better or worse. For institutional leaders preferring the former over the latter, we suggest the following:

1. Think deeply and carefully about your institution’s strategic plan.

Is it truly strategic? RHB analyzed 108 strategic plans across higher ed to determine what makes a strategic plan “strategic”.

2. Revisit your institution’s mission.

Is it still relevant? If we removed your institution’s name from your mission, would we still be able to distinguish that it is about your institution (and only your institution)? Warner Pacific University reshaped its urban studies program with a new mission, with the help of RHB, to become In the City for the City.

3. Engage your faculty in thinking about the intersections between disciplines.

Look for what opportunities could emerge in the liminal spaces among them, especially against the backdrop of this emerging economy. What happens when you blend history with physics? Philosophy with computer science? Anthropology with engineering? Or all six? Where might those intersections yield opportunity for your institution to meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs? As Agnes Scott College was developing its vaunted Summit program, we asked questions like these in our work with their faculty groups, much like we helped guide Concordia University Irvine as they developed their Enduring Questions and Ideas (Q&I) Core.

4. Assess your academic strengths and limitations. (Be honest.)

Consult your admitted student data. Are there ways that your weaker programs can be buoyed by your strengths through interdisciplinarity? Are there opportunities within lower enrollment academic programs to provide valuable and relevant cognate coursework to programs with higher enrollments?

5. Augment your gaps through partnerships.

If your institution does not have expertise in artificial intelligence, what partnerships can you explore to provide those opportunities for your students to learn attributes that prepare them to augment their academic programs at your institutions?

6. Be nimble.

How quickly can you adjust programs that leverage institutional strengths and expertise while still adhering to your institutional values? 

Some of these can (and, we assert, should) be difficult endeavors to undertake, but as Zig Ziglar once said, “The best time to do something significant is between yesterday and tomorrow.”

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Ken Anselment

Ken is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at RHB.