In 1967, the core humanities disciplines—including English, literature, languages, history, philosophy, and classics—accounted for more than 17 percent of all bachelor’s degrees conferred in the United States. By 2014, they accounted for only 6.1 percent, their lowest share on record.
Those figures come from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which also reports that the aggregate number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the core humanities fell by 8.7 percent between 2012 and 2014 alone.
Have American undergraduates simply lost interest in the liberal arts? That’s certainly part of the story, but it’s not even close to the whole story. The truth is that many students feel enormous pressure—including parental pressure—to avoid the humanities and pursue a more “practical” degree.
Just ask Steven Pearlstein, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post columnist who also teaches at George Mason University (GMU). A couple of years ago, Pearlstein assigned a lengthy biography of Andrew Carnegie in his GMU course on wealth and poverty. The book is around 800 pages, and he didn’t know how many students would make it through the whole thing.
As it turned out, most finished the book. What’s more, Pearlstein wrote recently, “Many thanked me for giving them the chance to read a popular work of history.” He was surprised to learn that none of his twenty-four honors students were majoring in history. For that matter, only one student was majoring in English, philosophy, or fine arts. “How was this possible?” he asked them. “Almost in unison, half a dozen replied: ‘Our parents wouldn’t let us.’”
Pearlstein posed a similar question to freshmen honors students last spring. “This time, I asked how many would have been humanities majors if the only criteria were what they were interested in and what they were good at. Ten of the twenty-four raised their hands.”
Anecdotes like these confirm that the liberal arts have a PR problem. From an early age, students learn all about the wonders of “STEM”—that is, science, technology, engineering, and math—while hearing cautionary tales about philosophy majors who live in their parents’ basement and serve coffee at Starbucks. It’s not surprising that mothers and fathers want to save their children from winding up as highly educated but deeply indebted baristas—especially when they (the parents) are footing the tuition bill.
The trouble is that, in our collective obsession with STEM, we’ve unfairly maligned the humanities and lost sight of what a college education is—or should be—all about. We’ve also painted a misleading picture of the job market.
To be fair, humanities professors have done much to discredit themselves. In history, English, and other departments across America, they have allowed identity politics, multiculturalism, and assorted pseudo-disciplines to corrupt or crowd out real learning and real scholarship. As a result, they have trivialized their course offerings and repelled students looking for a more traditional curriculum.
During my own undergraduate years, I chose to major in English because I loved reading, analyzing, and celebrating the greatest works of British and American literature. Yet far too many English departments have undermined their core mission by embracing a toxic mix of leftist, anti-Western ideology and dubious literary “theories.” That’s surely one reason for the long-term decline in the share of English majors. As Stanford professor of English emeritus William Chace has written:
“At the root [of the decline] is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.”
Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein puts it well: If humanities departments wish to reverse their fortunes, they should “retain conservative values that espouse a limited canon, honor literary-historical tradition, and approach art works in aesthetic terms (minding social and political themes, of course, but in a secondary position).”
Such a revival of the liberal arts would be good for students, good for genuine scholarship, and good for the country. After all, the American project will not be sustainable without a citizenry that understands and appreciates its cultural inheritance. As Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald has warned, “Ignorance of the intellectual trajectory that led to the rule of law and the West’s astounding prosperity puts those achievements at risk.” In that sense, no college education is complete without significant immersion in the humanities.
What about the popular claim that liberal-arts courses are becoming “irrelevant”? Business and political leaders often argue that, given the economic realities of the digital age, STEM graduates earn more money and have higher employment rates than humanities majors. While this argument is empirically grounded, it’s also quite misleading.
For starters, there is no “STEM shortage”—in fact, America churns out far more STEM graduates than it has available STEM jobs. In 2014, the Census Bureau reported that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of people with a STEM bachelor’s degree were not working in a STEM occupation. “All credible research,” writes Rutgers University labor-force expert Hal Salzman, “finds the same evidence about the STEM workforce: ample supply, stagnant wages and, by industry accounts, thousands of applicants for any advertised job.”
For another thing, employers increasingly value the social skills that a liberal arts curriculum can help students develop—skills related to communication, critical thinking, and creativity. “Since 1980,” notes Harvard scholar David Deming, “employment and wage growth has been particularly strong in occupations with high cognitive and social skill requirements. In contrast, employment has fallen in occupations with high math but low social skill requirements.”
Indeed, as Wall Street Journal correspondent Kate Davidson points out, in a 2015 Journal survey of close to 900 executives, a remarkable 92 percent said that “soft skills were equally important or more important than technical skills.”
So, yes, there is life after majoring in the humanities. Just ask one of the many current or former corporate CEOs—from Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube), and Richard Plepler (HBO) to Michael Eisner (Disney), Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), and Andrea Jung (Avon)—who enjoyed tremendous success in business after obtaining liberal-arts degrees.
“Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career,” observes author Verlyn Klinkenborg, “and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.”
In short: There are countless paths to happiness and fulfillment, and plenty of them involve studying the humanities. Moreover, a STEM degree is no guarantee of wealth, satisfaction, or job security. In today’s economy, employers are seeking workers with a wide range of skills, including non-technical skills.
It would be nice if more people delivered that message to America’s youth.