Reading & Reacting: As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry

Photo: Science Lab

Science Lab – cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Tennessee Wesleyan College

By Tamar Levin @ The New York Times

Reading this piece from last week sparked a whole range of thoughts. On one level, I think education reporting simply keeps missing that mark. Additionally, I continue to feel that most education reporting is rather lazy and this article doesn’t dispel that notion. What this piece only makes a passing glance at why interest in the humanities is fading.

The concern that the humanities are being eclipsed by science goes far beyond Stanford.

At some public universities, where funding is eroding, humanities are being pared. In September, for example, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania announced that it was closing its sparsely populated degree programs in German, philosophy, and world languages and culture.

At elite universities, such departments are safe but wary. Harvard had a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last decade, a recent report found, and most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields. So the university is looking to reshape its first-year humanities courses to sustain student interest.

Even the very colleges trying to address the waning humanities interest seem to miss the mark. Offering programs for high school students is not likely to really move the needle, although I think it is a great idea regardless.

My first question is why is it that only elite universities are represented in a piece like this. Where are the state universities or the small liberal arts colleges? As I mentioned, it seems a bit lazy to ring up a handful of usual suspects from the most selective, brand name schools.

There are only superficial reasons given for the decline. There is no question that science and technology are the fashion again, which has happened in earlier cycles. The funding for science provides access to enormous amounts of money. However, the projects and research that seeks those dollars are also similarly enormous in cost. Following the money is always a good idea.

For university administrators, finding the right mix of science and humanities is difficult, given the enormous imbalance in outside funding…Meanwhile, since the recession — probably because of the recession — there has been a profound shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground.

Humanities grants are infinitesimal in comparison to science grants. Plus, there is an increasing vocational aspect to college and universities, which is an almost natural result of more students than ever attending higher education.

Again, this is a monetary issue. Enticing more students to attend school requires more options for degrees, otherwise how will schools retain those students? Ever since colleges and universities made the transition to essentially operating like banks, they will follow the money wherever they think it will run.

What’s more, how much of the vocational aspect of higher education is simply a result of the skyrocketing cost of obtaining a degree? That question is never even posed in this article. As debt loads continue to rise, why would any students opt for a liberal arts or humanities degree when there are a host of alternatives that offer the hint of the potential of paying off the sizable student loans upon graduation?

For years, papers have been posting starting salary figures for various degrees with engineering routinely topping the table. Faced with the kind of tuition increases that have jumped over 200% in the last 30 years, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that students, or more importantly families, are looking for a way to shield the burden of debt that a history or philosophy degree is not likely to dent.

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