A humanities degree is worth much more than you realize

A humanities degree is worth much more than you realize
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As far as undergraduate enrolments are concerned, the humanities are on the decline.

According to a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, while the sciences, engineering and health-related fields continue to grow, the humanities have lost nearly half of their students over the last decade.

In 2016, only about 20 percent of all degrees granted by elite liberal arts colleges were in the humanities, a proportion that was barely above 10 percent at elite research universities and well below that threshold at the rest of the universe of American higher education, which accounts for over 80 percent of all students.

Alarmingly, the bedrock disciplines of English and History have taken the brunt of the decline, followed by foreign languages and literatures. 

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The conventional wisdom attributes the downward trend to the new economic and technological realities of the early-21st century. The crisis of 2008 appears to have shifted students’ preferences toward fields of study offering greater and more lucrative employment opportunities.

In turn, shifts in enrollments have led university administrators to balance budgets by cutting funding for the humanities. These explanations, however, do not seem to be consistent with some surprising patterns in the data.

For instance, over the same time period, undergraduate degrees in business have also declined, and by nearly as much as the humanities. Intriguingly, at community colleges, degrees in the humanities have grown from 37 to 42 percent of the total, and at the three U.S. military academies interest in the humanities remains stable.

Research universities and liberal arts colleges can perhaps learn from those institutions how to persuade students that a readily marketable skill-set is not enough. The humanities help people become better problem-solvers and decision-makers. 

There are many reasons to major in the humanities or to take classes in the humanities while majoring in some other field. For starters, it is simply not true that the humanities fail to prepare graduates for the new, technology-driven economy of the 21st century.

A recent study by David J. Deming, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, shows that the demand for the nonroutine analytical skills offered by a degree in the sciences or engineering has grown more slowly than the demand for social skills, including coordination, negotiation, persuasion and social perceptiveness.

While majors such as psychology, sociology and business offer many classes that help students acquire social skills, humanistic disciplines such as history, philosophy and literature, to name but a few, also offer an inexhaustible supply of practical and useful insights.

For instance, the study of biography and the role of key historical figures, including the people in their inner circle, offers a window into how leadership unfolds in different contexts. The study of rhetoric and logic can help enhance social skills.

Similarly, myriad novels dig into the essence of loyalty, betrayal and cooperation, offering insights that can be useful across a wide array of social situations. Drama and music also contribute to developing communication and team skills, and the study of the arts spurs personal creativity.

A second key reason to pursue a college education in the humanities is that the labor market seems to reward humanities majors handsomely. The difference in annual starting salary between a humanities and a science major, for instance, is rarely greater than $5,000 per year on average.

According to the meticulous research undertaken by Douglas A. Webber, an economist at Temple University, the 75th percentile of humanities majors make nearly as much as the median business or computer science graduate over their lifetimes.

Thus, majoring in the humanities can, and frequently is, a passport to a prosperous career, much in contrast with the conventional wisdom, especially at a time when some of the fastest-growing companies are pushing the boundaries of what technology can do by integrating scientific and humanistic disciplines, such as computer science and linguistics, for instance.

A third fundamental reason to major in the humanities in general, and in the study of languages and literatures in particular, is that the U.S. population is becoming more diverse, especially among the younger age groups.

According to the Census Bureau, by the year 2020, more than half of all U.S. children will belong to a racial group other than white, and shortly thereafter, the number of foreign-born people living in the U.S. will surpass the historic height of 1890.

The cultural and political repercussions of these changes are already being felt. It makes sense now more than ever for colleges and universities to expand course and major offerings that enable students to develop an updated sense of what it means to be "American."

Equally important will be to help students understand how diversity can contribute to collaboration, creativity, innovation and better outcomes in the workplace, as research has repeatedly shown.

Acquiring a language or learning about the literary production of a culture other than one’s own goes a long way in terms of appreciating the virtues and contributions of different people to the economy and the society.

While there are sound arguments for asserting the relevance of the humanities in this new technological and demographic era, most students continue to shun them in favor of other fields, and university administrators continue to draw the wrong conclusions, thus exacerbating the decline in enrollments.

Enhancing the public’s understanding of how the humanities can help meet the economic, political and technological challenges of the future is essential. Persuading students and their parents that the humanities offer valuable skill-sets in addition to a general education is a must.

Faculty in the humanities might want to think harder about ways in which their teaching could attract students who are not interested in the humanities as a career path.

The classic devices of double majors, minors and certificate programs could be deployed more systematically and assiduously in order to increase enrolments by non-majors, showing how taking a humanities class may contribute to the student’s education as an engineer, scientist or health specialist.

Perhaps the most promising avenue for reviving interest in the humanities is to offer a broader and more flexible "humanities major" that transcends the boundaries separating the various disciplines and academic departments.

After losing half of its clientele over the last decade, the humanities cannot wait any longer to take the initiative and catch the favorable winds of change. “And we must take the current when it serves,” said Brutus in Julius Caesar, “Or lose our ventures.”

Mauro F. Guillén, a sociologist by training, is the Anthony L. Davis director of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies and the Dr. Felix Zandman professor of international management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, with secondary appointments in the Sociology Department and the Graduate School of Education.