From The New York Review of Books:
Who is going to save the humanities?
On all fronts, fields like history and English, philosophy and classical studies, art history and comparative literature are under siege. In 2015, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities was down nearly 10 percent from just three years earlier. Almost all disciplines have been affected, but none more so than history. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of history majors nationwide fell from 34,642 in 2008 to 24,266 in 2017.
Last year, the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, facing declining enrollments, announced it was eliminating degrees in History, French, and German. The University of Southern Maine no longer offers degrees in either American and New England Studies or Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, while the University of Montana has discontinued majors and minors in its Global Humanities and Religions program. Between 2013 and 2016, US colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs.
The primary cause of these developments is the 2008 financial crash, which made students—especially the 70 percent of whom are saddled with debt—ever more preoccupied with their job prospects. With STEM jobs paying so well—the median annual earnings for engineering grads is $82,000, compared to $52,000 for humanities grads—enrollments in that area have soared. From 2013 to 2017, the number of undergraduates taking computer science courses nationwide more than doubled. A study of Harvard students from 2008 to 2016 found a dramatic shift from the humanities to STEM. The number majoring in history went from 231 to 136; in English, from 236 to 144; and in art history, from sixty-three to thirty-six, while those studying applied math went from 101 to 279; electrical engineering, from none to thirty-nine; and computer science, from eighty-six to 363.
University donors and public officials, hoping to duplicate the success of Stanford and Silicon Valley, are flooding STEM with money.
. . . .
Few comparable investments are occurring in the humanities. The contempt many officials feel for them was expressed most bluntly in 2011 by then-Florida governor (now senator) Rick Scott: “You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state… I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees,” so that “when they get out of school, they can get a job.” It’s not just Republicans who feel this way. In 2014, President Obama, speaking at a GE gas-engine plant in Wisconsin, extolled the virtues of learning a vocational skill: “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”
Defenders of the humanities generally emphasize what the field can do for the individual: they promote self-discovery, breed good citizens, and teach critical thinking. In a 2017 essay in The Washington Post, “Why We Still Need to Study the Humanities in a STEM World,” Gerald Greenberg, the senior associate dean of academic affairs at Syracuse, maintained that by studying the humanities, “one has an opportunity to get to know oneself and others better.” Such study “opens one to the examination of the entirety of the human condition and encourages one to grapple with complex moral issues ever-present in life.” His argument was recently echoed by a writer for the Harvard Business Review: “A practical humanism, paradoxically, is of little use. When we turn to them for tips, but not for trouble, the value of the humanities is lost.”
No doubt the humanities do broaden the mind and deepen the soul. In one form or another, they have been at the heart of higher education since the founding of the university itself in the thirteenth century, and they remain a repository of a society’s cultural and creative values. But to dismiss their practical worth seems both short-sighted and self-defeating. Far from lacking material value, the humanities are economic dynamos. The arts and entertainment industry that plays such a central part in people’s lives today is largely the creation of people who have studied literature, history, philosophy, and languages.
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books
PG respectfully demurs from the Gospel of STEM.
He doesn’t recall disclosing his undergraduate major on TPV on an earlier occasion, so this may be a. historic moment.
PG majored in The Oral Interpretation of Literature. (Undoubtedly, if this major still exists, it includes the word, “Communications” somewhere in its title because “Communications” is a Good Thing. The world needs more.)
For those with any questions, PG’s major was the antipode of a STEM degree then and now.
However, some of the skills he learned as an undergraduate have been very helpful in his legal career. A couple of examples:
- PG was very effective in a courtroom. (He’s humble about it, but PG is not alone in his assessment. Others paid him very nicely for the benefits of this talent.) Being able to persuasively present a message like, “The quality of mercy is not strained” can come in handy with both judge and jury.
- One of the elements of an assignment in the Oral Interpretation of Literature was a detailed written analysis of the piece to be performed. If you can effectively dissect, understand and analyze the subtleties of a collection of Spenserian stanzas (See, for example, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Eve of St. Agnes and, of course, The Faerie Queene), you can untangle the most complex contractual provisions ever written. No Copyright Licensing, Choice of Law and Forum or Force Majeure clause can match the linguistic complexity of eight lines of iambic pentameter followed by a ninth line of iambic hexameter in an end rhyme structure of ababbcbcc repeated a zillion times.
One of the benefits of a law degree and of other advanced degrees is that they can serve to take the curse off an undergraduate major that is unfashionable during a certain era.
PG has known enough engineers who were dissatisfied with their work life to state that STEM studies are not an unfailing key that opens the gates of happiness.