Coping with decline in humanities majors

The number of students choosing humanities majors is in decline. Since 1970, the number of humanities majors has decreased by half, from 14 to 7 percent.

This decline represents a paradigm shift on multiple levels, including the way students and parents view college education.

“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, said to The New York Times.

As college costs continue to rise, so has the importance of finding a well-paying job after graduation. In this regard, humanities majors suffer in comparison to those who major in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, often making tens of thousands of dollars less starting out of college. To avoid long-term debt, it has become financially necessary for students to choose STEM majors over the humanities.

Some professors view this outlook on college with disdain.

“I think that’s conceding too quickly,” said Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “We’re not a feeder for law school. Our job is to help students learn to question.”

Defenders of the humanities should not be discouraged by the decline in humanities majors, but instead should view this decline as an opportunity to redefine how the humanities are taught and learned.

At Stanford University, graduate students use Rap Genius to annotate Homer and Virgil. Incorporating technology in the teaching of the humanities will ensure that there will always be a place for the humanities, even in a society that continues to evolve technologically.

Schools such as Harvard University plan to re-shape their humanities courses to sustain student interest.

Adversity necessitates adaptation, so in the long run, the humanities may actually benefit from the present decline.

Worries that the decline in humanities majors will lead to a subsequent decline in critical thinking and moral fortitude are also exaggerated. Human beings do not learn right and wrong in the classroom, and you don’t need to be a humanities major to understand feelings like guilt and remorse.

Still, the humanities are a worthy field of study because they encourage further discussion of right and wrong, good and bad, etc. The humanities as a subject have not lost value — human beings still relish in understanding themselves, but the other aforementioned majors have gained value and continue to do so.

While some students will follow suit and pursue STEM fields, those who truly love the humanities will continue to major in them, regardless of cost. Some humanities departments may lament over having fewer students, but they can rejoice in having students truly impassioned with their majors.

Lastly, the decline in humanities majors does not mean a decline in the humanities. Anyone can enjoy the humanities — all you need is a good book.

Reach the columnist at jjmah@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @jonathanmah