Over the past year, the humanities have come under close scrutiny in our public discourse.
Last summer, Harvard released a report that showed a decline in enrollment in humanities majors. In January, President Obama took a shot at art history majors in a speech on education and the job market. All the while, voices in the national media have both questioned the value of the humanities and lamented their decline.
First, what do we mean when we talk about the humanities? And what sort of crisis is happening?
Many people tend to think of humanities and liberal arts as synonymous, a tendency that can lead to confusion. This 2013 report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences makes a clear distinction between humanities (languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, art and theology) and social sciences (anthropology, economics, political science, sociology and psychology).
I consider these two branches, with the addition of a third branch of mathematics and science, to constitute the liberal arts. Importantly so, any type of vocational or pre-professional study (like nursing, business or engineering) is not considered a liberal arts education.
In this context, declining enrollment numbers in the humanities (due in part to higher post-graduation unemployment rates and lower starting salaries) have prompted outcries of a crisis. While there is no conclusive data specifically on Georgetown, Georgetown College Senior Associate Dean Anne Sullivan informed me that humanities departments at our school “are experiencing the national trends.”
I don’t dispute the fact that fewer students at Georgetown are choosing to major in humanities fields. However, two statistical considerations may reveal this crisis to be less harsh than it initially appears.
First, statistician Nate Silver pointed out last summer on FiveThirtyEight that the percentage of humanities degrees has actually not declined by much when viewed as a percentage of the college-aged population rather than degrees awarded. Because there are many more pre-professional programs available today than in decades past, it’s no surprise that English majors represent a smaller share of total degrees awarded.
Yet, as Silver notes, many of those enrolled in such pre-professional programs would not have attended college in the past, so the share of English degrees as a percentage of U.S. 21-year-olds has not really declined very sharply. For instance, in terms of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S., degrees in English have seen a decline from 7.6 percent of all degrees in 1971 to 3.1 percent in 2011. But in terms of all 21-year-olds in the population, English degrees declined from 1.7 percent to 1.1 percent during that same period.
In addition, I think the lower employment and salary prospects that have prompted students to flee the humanities are largely because of what statisticians and economists call a self-selection bias.
The story goes something like this: There is nothing inherently less lucrative about the humanities as subjects of study. However, due to at least three forces — first, more pre-professional programs have become widely available; second, the opportunity to go to college has been expanded to a greater share of society; and third, the acute pressure of the recent recession has forced many to think more economically — the more “money-oriented students” have chosen not to study the humanities.
Therefore, because the pool of students who choose to study the humanities is less money-oriented and not because of anything inherent in the subjects themselves, it’s no surprise that their postgraduate salaries and employment rates are lower. I’m not arguing that self-selection explains all of the difference in post-graduation prospects, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
An unrelated point: I would be curious to look at data on minors in the humanities. I would guess that many career-oriented students who choose majors in economics or business (and would have studied English or theology if money were of less of a concern) have added humanities subjects as minors. It would be nearly impossible to disentangle this effect from the overall trend of more double-majors and minors in our culture of overachievement and grade inflation, but it’s just something I’m wondering about.
Even if the decline of humanities majors may not actually be as harsh as it seems, we can’t pretend it isn’t happening at all. With this in mind, next I’ll look at why I think a humanities major is one of the best choices a college student can make.
Paul Healy is a rising senior in the College. Hoya Sapiens appears every other Thursday at thehoya.com. This column is the first in a two-part series on the humanities in undergraduate academics.