By Kaitlyn Murphy
In the age of information, the thrilling history of humanity is being overlooked, as students throughout the U.S. show their academic favoritism for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors over the humanities, particularly English.
Humanities is the study of human history, encompassing subjects such as philosophy, history, the arts, languages, and literature. Over the past 10 years, degrees in these fields have become less esteemed and sought after, with a 2022 survey showing that only seven percent ofÂ HarvardÂ freshmenÂ were enrolledÂ in humanities majors, a figure thatÂ was twenty percentÂ inÂ 2012, and thirty percent in the 1970s, says The New Yorker. But the question remains; whatâ€™sÂ drivingÂ thisÂ exodusÂ fromÂ humanities?
EmphasisÂ onÂ theÂ pursuitÂ ofÂ STEMÂ fieldsÂ isÂ nothingÂ new,Â withÂ financialÂ incentiveÂ andÂ government funding for STEM programs being higher than that of the humanities, an issue thatÂ isÂ notÂ uniqueÂ toÂ contemporaryacademia.Â MatthewÂ K.Â Gold,Â professorÂ ofÂ EnglishÂ andÂ Digital humanities,Â elaboratedÂ inÂ anÂ articleÂ forÂ CUNY GraduateÂ CenterÂ onÂ theÂ issueÂ ofÂ fundingÂ forÂ theÂ humanities.Â â€œTheÂ problemÂ isnâ€™tÂ thatÂ peopleÂ arenâ€™tÂ interestedÂ inÂ the humanities;Â itâ€™s thatÂ governments have disinvested in higher education and civil society, leaving universitiesÂ scrambling for resources andÂ emphasizing STEMÂ because itÂ brings inÂ grantÂ money andÂ investorsÂ andÂ creates wealthierÂ alumni.â€Â TheÂ usefulnessÂ ofÂ aÂ degreeÂ inÂ theÂ humanitiesÂ isÂ notÂ theÂ issue,Â rather the funding. In fact, as stated by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, employersÂ often look for skills that areÂ gained through studying subjects in the humanities (I.e., writing,Â criticalÂ thinking,Â communication,Â andÂ teamwork).
While funding andÂ economics are factors inÂ the decline inÂ interest inÂ the humanities,Â there is also a greater issue among students: the humanities are not taken seriously. There is aÂ focus among students onÂ the short-termÂ financialÂ benefits of a degree, rather thanÂ the long- termÂ acquisitionÂ ofÂ multifacetedÂ skills.Â Prof.Â NathalieÂ Etoke, GraduateÂ CenterÂ ProfessorÂ ofÂ French and Liberal Studies, provided CUNY Graduate Center with insight into exactly whyÂ humanities majors may be dwindling, â€œThe decliningÂ figuresÂ spell out a hard truth: HumanitiesÂ doÂ not offerÂ theÂ tangibleÂ rewardsÂ advocatedÂ byÂ Americaâ€™sÂ neoliberalÂ culture.â€Â TheÂ social incentiveÂ forÂ aÂ degreeÂ inÂ STEM fieldsÂ seemsÂ toÂ beÂ higher,Â withÂ economicÂ validationÂ oftenÂ following as well.
The reception of the humanities also plays a role in the decline in their enrollment.
Majors like English are perceived as frivolous passion projects, reserved for those who are well-Â to-do and unconcerned with long-term employment.Â First-generation students find themselves atÂ aÂ crossroadsÂ between passionÂ andÂ economics,Â withÂ oneÂ HarvardÂ graduateÂ whoÂ hadÂ studiedÂ molecularÂ andÂ cellularÂ biologyÂ withÂ aÂ minorÂ in linguistics,Â reiteratingÂ aÂ sentimentÂ instilledÂ in themÂ byÂ theirÂ parentsÂ toÂ theÂ NewÂ Yorker,Â â€œYouÂ donâ€™tÂ goÂ toÂ HarvardÂ forÂ basketÂ weaving,â€.Â ThereÂ is this idea that pursuing a degree, and ultimately a career, in the humanities does not carry the same academic or social value that a degree in STEM may provide. There is also this persistentÂ idea that the humanities are not challenging, andÂ for that reasonÂ shouldÂ not be taken seriously. Harvard junior Isabel Metha revealed to the New Yorker how, â€œ[She] thought that those majorsÂ wereÂ aÂ joke,â€Â continuing,Â â€œIÂ thought,Â Iâ€™mÂ aÂ writer,Â butÂ Iâ€™llÂ neverÂ beÂ an EnglishÂ major.â€
Though the forecast for the humanities seems to be precarious,Â there is hope. SarahÂ Blackwood, professor of EnglishÂ at Pace University,Â has noticed, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, an increase in students studying English, commenting, â€œWe have never seenÂ aÂ significant dropÂ inÂ majors,Â atÂ leastÂ sinceÂ IÂ arrivedÂ inÂ 2009,Â otherÂ thanÂ theÂ pandemicÂ 2020-21Â year,Â whenÂ theÂ wholeÂ universityâ€™s enrollmentÂ tookÂ aÂ dive.Â MoreÂ recently,Â weâ€™reÂ upÂ overÂ ourÂ pre-pandemicÂ numbers inÂ an unusual way.â€ The end of the EnglishÂ major, as portrayed byÂ NathanÂ Hellers essayÂ in The NewÂ Yorker,Â may notÂ beÂ all thatÂ accurate.