Saturday, November 2, 2013

Humanities as a "House of Pain"

Jill Lepore, the prolific American historian, describes a recent encounter she had with a student who came to her home for an information session on Harvard's history and literature program.  After arriving at the session, the student "was quickly deluged" with text messages from her parents telling her to "Leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain."

As this New York Times article explains, the humanities are becoming a tough sell in colleges and universities across the country. Administrators push the STEM disciplines and as a result fewer and fewer students are majoring in humanities disciplines.  For example, the University of Virginia had 501 English majors in 1984.  They now have 394.  Edinboro University of Pennsylvania just closed its degree programs in German, philosophy, and world languages and culture.  Harvard has had a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last decade.  Princeton is now offering a high school program to help recruit students for humanities majors.  At Stanford, 45 percent of the undergraduate faculty are in the humanities, but only 15 percent of the students are majoring in these subjects.

Here is a taste of the article:

“There’s an overwhelming push from the administration at most universities to build up the STEM fields, both because national productivity depends in part on scientific productivity and because there’s so much federal funding for science,” said John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, since the recession — probably because of the recession — there has been a profound shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground.

“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” said Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

While humanities majors often have trouble landing their first job, their professors say that over the long term, employers highly value their critical thinking skills.