STEM who? The humanities mount a comeback

Monday, February 6, 2023 - 08:00

The pro-STEM movement has gutted high school and college humanities programs — but there's some evidence of a post-pandemic revival afoot.

Why it matters: In academic circles, humanities' decades-long decline is blamed for the proliferation of falsehoods on social media, coarse political discourse, the rise in racism and the parlous state of democracy (not to mention our etiolated vocabularies).

Driving the news: When the University of California, Berkeley, reported an uptick in humanities majors this academic year, there was elation — and shock — at the prospect of a trend reversal.

  • The number of first-year Berkeley students declaring majors in the arts and humanities — which includes English, history, languages, philosophy and media studies — was up 121% over last year.
  • The number of high schoolers applying to Berkeley with the intention of studying humanities was up 43.2% from five years ago, and up 73% vs. 10 years ago.

"Students are turning to the arts and humanities as a way to make sense of our current moment," Sara Guyer, dean of Berkeley’s division of arts and humanities and director of the World Humanities Report, told the university's news service.

  • The University of Arizona's College of Humanities has seen a 33% increase in student majors since 2016.
  • A handful of other schools — such as Arizona State University and the University of Washington — have also seen a rise in students declaring humanities majors.

What's happening: Some professors, colleges and departments have been trying to boost humanities' popularity by touting their real-world utility.

  • They're citing salary information that's competitive with STEM fields and the value of critical-thinking and writing skills.
  • And they're making the case that studying history and literature is essential to becoming a well-rounded global citizen — or corporate middle-manager.

What they're saying: "We're seeing enrollment increases where there's actual conscious attention to giving the humanities the resources they need to make a case for their value," Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, tells Axios.

  • "Biology majors aren't making any more money than we do, and they're getting all this press like they're some sort of golden tickets."
  • The humanities "have always relied on people understanding the intrinsic value of philosophy, history, English literature and foreign language study, so we haven't made the case distinctly enough to our students for what it does for them after they graduate," Krebs added.

Yes, but: That's starting to change at places like South Dakota State University, where a program in languages "certifies students in ways that are intelligible to employers," Krebs said.

  • Similarly, at the University of Arizona, "applied humanities" is a new, fast-growing department that includes programs in business administration, fashion studies, game studies and public health.

Reality check: Experts call Berkeley's experience an outlier — but one that's opening a conversation about the value of a liberal arts degree.

  • The American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which runs an ongoing humanities tracker, hasn’t yet picked up on a humanities revival — but it only has data through 2018.
  • Meanwhile, universities are still disinvesting in the arts and humanities and pouring money into vocationally oriented programs that students believe, correctly or not, will get them ahead.

Between the lines: While it's too soon to say if the students signing up to study humanities will stick with those majors, there has been a noteworthy proliferation of professors and public intellectuals whipping up concern about the state of the field.

  • Professor James Engell, a stalwart of Harvard University's English department, threw down the glove in a Harvard Magazine essay, in which he wrote: "By minimizing the arts and humanities, higher education exacerbates the problems confronting society."
  • "No one can interpret difficult texts, write sound treaties, examine conflicting testimony, or cut a path through the divisive, frequently false claims on social media without language and judgment sharpened by the humanities."

A federal imprimatur: President Biden recently issued an executive order to promote the arts, the humanities, and museum and library services.

  • He called them "essential to the well-being, health, vitality and democracy of our nation."

The bottom line: Schools have been trying to drum up interest in the humanities for years — but this time feels different, with our sensibilities and priorities reshaped by the pandemic, the Capitol insurrection and other paradigm shifts.

Worthy of your time: James Engell's essay in Harvard Magazine

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