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 of Harvard freshmen were enrolled in humanities majors, a figure that was twenty percent in 2012, and thirty percent in the 1970s, says The New Yorker. But the question remains; what’s driving this exodus from humanities?
Emphasis on the pursuit of STEM fields is nothing new, with financial incentive and government funding for STEM programs being higher than that of the humanities, an issue that is not unique to contemporaryacademia. Matthew K. Gold, professor of English and Digital humanities, elaborated in an article for CUNY Graduate Center on the issue of funding for the humanities. “The problem isn’t that people aren’t interested in the humanities; it’s that governments have disinvested in higher education and civil society, leaving universities scrambling for resources and emphasizing STEM because it brings in grant money and investors and creates wealthier alumni.” The usefulness of a degree in the humanities is not the issue, rather the funding. In fact, as stated by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, employers often look for skills that are gained through studying subjects in the humanities (I.e., writing, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork).
While funding and economics are factors in the decline in interest in the humanities, there is also a greater issue among students: the humanities are not taken seriously. There is a focus among students on the short-term financial benefits of a degree, rather than the long- term acquisition of multifaceted skills. Prof. Nathalie Etoke, Graduate Center Professor of French and Liberal Studies, provided CUNY Graduate Center with insight into exactly why humanities majors may be dwindling, “The declining figures spell out a hard truth: Humanities do not offer the tangible rewards advocated by America’s neoliberal culture.” The social incentive for a degree in STEM fields seems to be higher, with economic validation often 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- to-do and unconcerned with long-term employment. First-generation students find themselves at a crossroads between passion and economics, with one Harvard graduate who had studied molecular and cellular biology with a minor in linguistics, reiterating a sentiment instilled in them by their parents to the New Yorker, “You don’t go to Harvard for basket weaving,”. There 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 persistent idea that the humanities are not challenging, and for that reason should not be taken seriously. Harvard junior Isabel Metha revealed to the New Yorker how, “[She] thought that those majors were a joke,” continuing, “I thought, I’m a writer, but I’ll never be an English major.”
Though the forecast for the humanities seems to be precarious, there is hope. Sarah Blackwood, professor of English at Pace University, has noticed, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, an increase in students studying English, commenting, “We have never seen a significant drop in majors, at least since I arrived in 2009, other than the pandemic 2020-21 year, when the whole university’s enrollment took a dive. More recently, we’re up over our pre-pandemic numbers in an unusual way.” The end of the English major, as portrayed by Nathan Hellers essay in The New Yorker, may not be all that accurate.