In reaction to a recent report by The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences and articles proclaiming that the number of college students graduating with a degree in the humanities has fallen by 50 percent in the past 50 years, First cautions not to get too caught up in the sensational nature of quantitative data. This study compared the current student population to those from a half century ago, but First points out that today’s number may just be ”down from an aberrant peak.” First, who holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Haverford College and a doctorate degree in higher education from Harvard University, points out that today’s college students are incredibly different than the population that attended college in the 1960s.
“College is serving a different purpose for different populations,” First says. “The non-traditional population has grown a lot and they need it [a college education] for different things.”
Many more students today are older and decide what to study based on financial need, whereas the younger, more traditional student population has less pressing monetary demands. Even with changes in the student population, the drivers of the economy and the way we access education, First warns against the idea of discounting the humanities altogether. At their core, studying the humanities, whether it’s your sole field of study or just some classes you take to complement other more technical fields of study, teaches you how to think critically and express yourself. Focusing exclusively on knowledge that can be commoditized, like the hard sciences, misses the big picture. The idea of graduating class after class of college grads who lack a basic knowledge of how to express themselves is a scary thought.
So how do we “save” the humanities? Making their study more cost-effective is a start. In the last several decades, many universities have moved away from tenure-track professors in an effort to save money. There is currently an oversupply of humanities PhDs, and as a result they work cheap. (Not a great argument for the financial salvation of those who choose to devote their lives to the humanities.) In addition, it’s vital for humanities advocates and universities who want to preserve their humanities departments to publicize real-world applications. This won’t be accomplished through public service announcements or indoctrination, but rather by showing off what studying the humanities can lead to. First pointed out the TEDx event that Brown University hosted last year to showcase some of the innovative work being done by their liberal arts graduates as a great example.
Ironically, the rise in Massive Online Open-source Technology (MOOT), which seems like something that would give STEM subjects a natural boost, may actually end up being an asset for humanities advocates. While online courses are quickly becoming an indispensable part of the education system of the future, their inability to replicate human interaction, a hallmark of everything the humanities are rooted in, may serve to highlight the need to hold on to this aspect of education in some way. PayScale advises students who want to study subjects that don’t lead to high-paying jobs to round out their education with marketable STEM skills, but it is just as imperative that students who want to become engineers, scientists and software developers round out their education with skills that teach them how to think critically, express their ideas and interact with others. In short, an extra comparative literature class or art history survey might be where the next Mark Zuckerberg learns how to pitch his or her big idea.
In closing, when I asked First what advice he would give his own daughter when she’s ready to choose a path for college, he said “If my daughter wanted to go major in an esoteric technical field for a dispassionate economical decision, I’d be more worried than if she wanted to become an art history major because she would be lacking some major skills.” He has a point. Specific technical skills become obsolete, but the importance of critical thought is eternal, even if it doesn’t pay quite as much right out of school.
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