Humanities: is it declining or more relevant than ever? The longstanding debate – over 40 years in the making – regarding the state of the humanities has been reignited due to this summer’s flurry of reports. Let’s explore the facts and fiction.
On June 18, 2013, a 61-page report called “The Heart of the Matter” was delivered on Capitol Hill. Led by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and produced by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, the report addresses concerns regarding the “dramatic” decline in the percentage of humanities degrees conferred since its peak in 1966.
Earlier in June, Harvard University released its own trio of reports that reveal and analyze the downward trend they’ve experienced in the arts and humanities. The report also provides evidence of decline at other universities such as Princeton and Yale. The third report in Harvard’s series titled “Mapping the Future,” outlines an action plan for modernizing how the humanities’ traditions are integrated into the Harvard curriculum. The June 6, 2013 issue of the Harvard Gazette states, “After studying data that goes back decades, ‘Mapping the Future’ acknowledged that art and philosophy are ‘where the meanings are,’ but increasingly where the undergraduates are not.”
Not surprisingly, the release of these reports has resulted in a hailstorm of media coverage. Reporter Robin Wilson’s July 19 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding “The Heart of the Matter” begins, “The latest national report on the humanities reads like a pep talk. It doesn’t quantify what it calls a critical lack of attention to the humanities, nor does it plot out many data points to support its assertion that the nation’s focus has faded from those fields and needs to be renewed.”
Despite the fact that overall college enrollment dropped two percent in 2012-2013 (mostly at for-profit and community colleges), data shows that the economic value of college is indisputable.
Meanwhile, families struggling to pull out of the 2008 recession are understandably wary of committing to college debt and have heightened anxiety about job prospects at graduation. Since 1993, average student loan debt at graduation has grown nearly 88 percent. (Graph 2) As a result, parents and prospective students alike are turning to resources like payscale.com and CollegeRealityCheck. com (spearheaded by Bill and Melinda Gates) to pit college against college as they review average net tuition price, potential earnings by major, average student loan debt at graduation, graduation rates and placement data.
A 2011 report released by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce analyzed the long-term earnings of 171 college degree majors, and the data reflects that liberal arts and humanities majors earned a lower median annual salary when compared to the top ten majors.
The result is a Washington Post article titled, “On Path to Riches, No Sign of Fluffy Majors.” The article begins with a joke:
The scientist asks, “Why does it work?”
The engineer asks, “How does it work?”
The English major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”
As tax dollars get squeezed and education funding is scrutinized, private liberal arts institutions aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch of scrutiny around the humanities. Public institutions have begun feeling the pain as well. A Florida task force recently recommended that public universities charge more for “non-strategic majors” such as history and English. North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory has gone on record stating that he questions whether taxpayer dollars should support programs that he categorizes as elitist and that do not lead to jobs.
A quick online search of the top in-demand degrees lists majors such as accounting, finance, engineering, computer science and business administration. To add to that, many families see vocational degrees as a cost-effective and sure-fire gateway to immediate employment for their children. Seemingly, none of this information bodes well for the future of the humanities.
As with every situation, one should examine all sides to gain a full perspective. First and foremost, the enrollment decline in the humanities is old news. It actually occurred between 1971 and 1983. (Graph 3) Many speculate the decline can be attributed to the fact that more women chose to enter pre-professional majors during the 1970s as the workplace, co-education and the resulting choices for women expanded
Second, many question when to take the snapshot and what data should be examined. At its peak in 1967, 17.7 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned were in the humanities. But in 1983-85 that percentage dropped to 6.7 percent. So, if one were to take a 30-year snapshot (1983), the percentage of humanities graduates has remained relatively flat. Others recommend evaluating the total number of bachelor’s degrees completed in the humanities. In doing so, the proportion of undergraduate humanities degrees completed again looks relatively stable over the last few decades.
Fast forward to 2013. Even though the humanities hasn’t experienced a decline in numbers since 1980, there is considerable pressure to explain its relevance in more immediate and practical ways. Universities like Harvard feel the humanities must be retooled and integrated in new ways to ensure student success. In essence, they must demonstrate that the humanities provides the communication, ethics and thinking toolkit that should accompany virtually any and all careers.
In April 2013, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) published the findings of an online survey titled, “It Takes More Than A Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” Survey respondents were 318 executives in the private sector and nonprofit organizations who have at least 25 employees and report that 25 percent or more of their new hires hold either an associate degree from a two-year college or a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. Among the many important findings the survey revealed, following are a few highlights:
- 93 percent of employers agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.
- More than 75 percent of those surveyed said they want more emphasis on five key areas: critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
- 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
In her article, “Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm,” Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times quotes Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead, “People talk about the humanities and social sciences as if they are a waste of time. But this facile negativism forgets that many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education.” Oprah Winfrey (speech and drama) and Mitt Romney (English) are two examples of the many notable individuals who hold humanities degrees.
Though humanities majors do, on average, make less than their non-humanities counterparts, the gap is not significant. (Graph 5) And in some fields, like philosophy, graduates make more at mid-career than non-humanities graduates.
In fact, philosophy is in the middle of the 50 majors listed by “Starting Median Salary” on payscale.com. Click on “Mid-Career Median Salary” and philosophy jumps to 16, just below finance and management information systems (MIS). The Wall Street Journal online references the Payscale.com list and states, “Your parents might have worried when you chose philosophy or international relations as a major. But a yearlong survey of 1.2 million people with only a bachelor’s degree by PayScale Inc. shows that graduates in these subjects earned 103.5% and 97.8% more, respectively, about 10 years post-commencement.”
It is also important to note that 40 percent of liberal arts and humanities majors go on to obtain graduate degrees. According to Brad Tuttle of Time, the Georgetown report on majors and their earnings potential does not factor in graduate degrees. “So, in some cases, the engineers aren’t out-earning the English majors by quite as much. For example, about 44 percent of education majors earn graduate degrees and raise their incomes by 33 percent.”
Another point to consider is that students are increasingly electing to double-major. Maurilinn Waneka ’12 graduated with a double major in economics and philosophy. Prior to graduation, Waneka was offered a full- time job with global banking firm BNP Paribas. Waneka says, “My degree in economics helped get me the interview. But my second degree in philosophy helped me get the job.”
Nancy Hensel is president of The New American Colleges and Universities (NAC&U), a national consortium of small, private colleges and universities of which Drury is a member. She states that the 21 NAC&U member schools have been paying attention to the humanities issue for nearly 20 years; the most recent example being the Teagle Foundation implementation grant.
“Participating campuses are documenting how they are blending the liberal arts with professional studies and developing an integration map,” said Hensel. In keeping with the AAC&U report, the monograph will reveal how the NAC&U members ensure that every student has a solid liberal arts education that touches upon employers’ requests for transferable skills. Hensel continues, “The consortium has always felt that this was the best way to educate because with any major problem you face in the U.S., you can’t just put one discipline behind it. Take immigration for example. The literature of immigration is important, as are sociology, history, ethics, writings of immigrants and political science.”
One would be remiss not to ask how Drury University, a 140-year-old institution, whose very foundation is based in the liberal arts, is responding to this most recent attack on the humanities.
Actually, responding isn’t quite the right verb. Preempting may be more appropriate. In June 2013, the humanities division completed its strategic plan. The plan, a culmination of nearly two years of work, articulates a new vision for the division: “…to build a humanities division that achieves regional and national prominence, helping to make Drury a recognized educational leader.”
The plan also provides some important data. For example, from 2009-2011, the division numbers have remained stable, comprising 20 percent of the total majors at Drury University. (Graph 6) Additionally, when reviewing the number of Bachelor of Arts completions in the U.S. as reported by the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the combined humanities averages 10 percent of the total number, whereas Drury humanities degrees are about twice that. Following are a few highlights of the humanities’ strategic plan:
- Collaboration & integration: Forge strategic partnerships with pre-professional programs to create humanities-focused courses and programs related to specific majors and careers
- Graduate M.A.: Develop an interdisciplinary M.A. in the Humanities
- Society for the Humanities: Establish an official undergraduate club at Drury
- Humanities House: Serve as student housing and as a focus for planning and hosting humanities-based programming
- Ethics certificate: Serve pre-professional programs and involve the local Springfield community
In keeping with Drury’s commitment to integration, the biology and philosophy departments have collaborated on the development of a new biology course to be launched in 2014 titled “Philosophy of Science.” Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion Dr. Chris Panza says, “This course will help students think more deeply about biology. It will train them to think theoretically about what science is as a discipline; to critique it from a variety of angles; and to understand a problem in ‘out of the box’ sort of ways, not just solve it.”
Jeffrey Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education states in his recently released book College Unbound, “It’s been widely reported that many of the best jobs of tomorrow don’t even exist today, so the successful colleges of the future will be those that graduate students who have the imagination to figure things out.”
In the spring 2011 issue of Drury Magazine, William Garvin, university archivist wrote an article titled, “Sweat, Anguish & the Tradition of Liberal Learning at Drury.” In it, he quotes Albert Einstein, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
Despite the hearty debate currently swirling around the humanities, one thing continues to ring true: knowing how to think is not going by the wayside.