Over the last few decades, universities in the U.S. have experienced a sharp decline in student enrollment in the humanities. Statistics from various sources illustrate that in the fields of English, languages, philosophy, and history, the number of graduates have decreased from 7.5 percent in the 2000s to below five percent today. What has caused this decline, and what are the consequences?
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Why Are the Humanities Collapsing?
Although the current drop in humanities enrollment is noteworthy, it is not the first time that this decline has taken place. In the period between 1950 and the late 1960s, enrollment in the humanities soared, only to dwindle again in the 1970s when the growth of higher education started slowing down. With the advent of the 1980s, this trend changed and humanities majors started gaining popularity once again. This period of stability in the humanities came to a sudden end in 2008 when the Great Recession took place. After this financial crisis there has been an ever-increasing decline in humanities majors.
So What Are the Actual Stats?
Universities across the U.S have experienced a sharp decline in almost every field in the humanities, as well as related social sciences. Statistics provided by the Department of Education show that history majors have dropped by about 45 percent since 2007, while English majors are roughly 50 percent down from the late 1990s. For the first time in 20 years the major fields in the humanities, namely philosophy, history, English, and language, are projected to produce less than 100,000 degrees.
The sharp decline in the humanities is especially keenly felt at liberal-arts colleges and elite schools, where, traditionally, majors have always been evenly divided between the various disciplines, including sciences, social sciences, and humanities. This is no longer the case, with humanities majors currently representing well below a quarter of all degrees.
What Degrees are Students Enrolling For?
So which majors are students currently opting for? Statistics show that the fields that have experienced the biggest increase in student numbers are almost exclusively STEM subjects, which encompass science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Health professions like nursing have also enjoyed a growing interest from the student body. Quantitative social sciences, such as economics, have shown neither a noticeable increase nor a decrease in student enrollment, whereas the social sciences, which are more closely related to humanities, have displayed dwindling numbers.
What is Lost if Humanities Disappear?
In a world that has not really bounced back from the Great Recession, studying towards a degree in the humanities seems like a luxury not many of us can afford. The focus, increasingly, is falling on productivity and, well, money, and less so on the arts and matters of the soul.
But what do we stand to lose in a society that is increasingly shunning the importance of an education in the humanities? In short, we are rearing an emerging generation that may be able to conduct complex calculations, build bridges, and perform ground-breaking heart surgery, but one that lacks creative thought and empathy. When one learns a new language, for instance, you also learn about a different culture and way of life.
Studies show that humanities students also possess more problem-solving and critical thinking skills than their peers—skills that enable them to excel at a large variety of tasks. Employers are slowly starting to understand that employees who can think clearly and creatively, are good at custom writing, and can express themselves well, are valuable assets in the workforce.
Although students who major in finance and computer science stand to make good money, those who major in the humanities will only make marginally less on average, while raking in roughly as much as those who have majored in business studies. Some statistics actually show that humanities majors under 35 more readily find employment than their peers who have majored in life sciences or social sciences.
It is quite difficult to try and predict what the job market will be doing, even in the near future. But what we can, however, rely on is change. Although most students are opting not to major in the humanities in the current economic climate, the job market may have a surplus of, for instance, computer science graduates in years to come. Whatever the future brings, one can only hope that the humanities will pervade, as a world without art, music, and languages seems like quite an impoverished one.