let’s ask math to comment on the decline of the humanities….

huge manatees

They are really big.

Much has been written recently on the supposed decline of the liberal arts and/or the humanities. These articles make good weekend morning reading at the coffee shop. The more recent articles were triggered by a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that advocates for a reinvigorated focus on the humanities in education:

The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences—including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology—examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community….

Here’s a link to the actual report so you can read it if you like. Anyhow, on to the articles…. The New York Times’ David Brooks (I’ll be honest, he’s not my favorite) laments on the decline based on what he reads in the above-referenced report. He blames, well, us:

A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third. Most people give an economic explanation for this decline. Accounting majors get jobs. Lit majors don’t. And there’s obviously some truth to this. But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise…. Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

Author and New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg chimes in:

The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times. So says a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so says the experience of nearly everyone who teaches at a college or university. Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.

Sticking with the Grey Lady for a bit longer, Nate Silver gives his special take on the subject, theorizing that the statistics supposedly showing this “decline” are skewed because there are more students than ever attending college. He uses math to assess the recent arguments over the decline of the humanities:

I am sympathetic to certain parts of Mr. Klinkenborg’s hypothesis: for instance, the potential value of writing skills even for students who major in scientific or technical fields, and the risks that specialization can pose to young minds that are still in their formative stages. But Mr. Klinkenborg also neglects an important fact: more American students are attending college than ever before. He is correct to say that the distribution of majors has become more career-focused, but these degrees may be going to students who would not have gone to college at all in prior generations. [Emphasis added.]

Mr. Silver goes on to explain why this matters, and as an example he shows that an increase in non-humanities majors does not necessarily equate to a decline in the humanities:

The relative decline of majors like English is modest when accounting for the increased propensity of Americans to go to college. In fact, the number of new degrees in English is fairly similar to what it has been for most of the last 20 years as a share of the college-age population. [Emphasis added.]

In 2011, 3.1 percent of new bachelor’s degrees were in English language or literature. That figure is down from 4.1 percent 10 years ago, 4.7 percent 20 years ago, and 7.6 percent 40 years ago, in 1971. But as a proportion of the college-age population, the decline is much less distinct. In 2011, 1.1 out of every 100 21-year-olds graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, down only incrementally from 1.2 in 2001 and 1.3 in 1991. And the percentage of English majors as a share of the population is actually higher than it was in 1981, when only 0.7 out of every 100 21-year-olds received a degree in English.

Mr. Silver’s article contains numerous charts showing the trends for various majors. Here’s his upshot:

In short, college attendance has become more of a norm for a broader range of students, including those that might pursue a wide array of careers, like nursing or criminal justice, that are ordinarily associated with the middle class.

Mr. Klinkenborg’s experience is at highly selective universities, including Harvard and Yale, where he has taught nonfiction writing. In those environments, he might have some room for concern about the fate of English majors. Since 1996, the average critical reading SAT score for prospective English majors has declined to 580 from 605, among the sharpest declines in any college discipline. And the unemployment rate among English majors was 6.9 percent in 2011 – considerably higher than 5.3 percent for bachelor’s degree recipients as a whole.

But schools like Harvard and Yale are becoming ever less representative of the whole as more young Americans attend college.

Perhaps the more important moral and policy question is what academic requirements should be in place, whether in English composition or probability and statistics, among students across all majors – including those who go to college with a specific career in mind.

There are some real issues to discuss, as Mr. Silver points out, with employment rates and the “value” of certain majors. But more on that in another post. As a teaser, here’s one final article that was written by an accounting professor and an English professor, more on the value of the liberal arts, than the purported decline:

During the spring semester at the University of Richmond’s business school, 10 accounting majors sat in a loose circle, deep in conversation, every Wednesday afternoon. They weren’t discussing complex accounting rules or the U.S. tax code. They weren’t prepping for the comprehensive CPA examination or comparing job offers. Instead, they were sharing insights on three masterpieces of Victorian literature….

Why would they spend valuable seat time discussing an old book, and will it make a difference to those budding accountants? It’s a fascinating article, and you can read it here.


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