Signs of Life for the Humanities?

Signs of Life for the Humanities?

by Kimberly Shimer

The State of Humanities Studies

Depending on whom you ask, signs are either pointing toward “The End of the English Major” or a “Humanities Revival.” On February 27, 2023, The New Yorker reported on sharp declines in English, language, literature, history and women’s studies majors at schools like Arizona State, Ohio State, Tufts, Boston University, Notre Dame, Vassar, Wisconsin, and Bates. Data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project shows that the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third in the past decade. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined over all by 17 percent. Often thought to reflect the state of the economy, trends now indicate that humanities enrollment has continued falling when the economy has looked up, and that when the markets have wobbled “enrollments have tumbled even more.” 

This decline in humanities studies is attributed to a variety of factors:

  • Less clarity over what careers are available to humanities majors

  • Rising student debt driving students toward hard-skill majors, like STEM

  • Lack of funding for humanities at the national, state, and university levels

  • Smart humanities-oriented kids taking advanced placement tests, or studying English or history at community college, so, by the time they make it to four-year colleges, they’ve placed out of humanities requirements: classes in which students often fall in love with the field

The New Yorker’s lengthy doom and gloom report does end on a very brief high note in which the writer notes that the humanities division at Arizona State has seen “early signs of real improvement.” After almost a decade of near-constant decline, there has been a slight increase in the number of humanities majors.

That recent growth was the glass-half-full angle that Axios decided to take in its article titled “Humanities Revival.” Recognizing how the pro-STEM movement has “gutted high school and college humanities programs,” the piece proposed that a revival may be afoot. Evidence includes not only Arizona State’s numbers, but also a reported uptick in humanities majors by first-year UC Berkeley students, as well as students at the University of Washington. 

Why Should We Care?

Unless one is a humanities teacher or professor with a job at stake, you may be wondering why these reports matter. James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia, has a bold response: "As funding for the humanities has declined, so has democracy." In her research, Axios reporter Jennifer Kingson found a similar sentiment: “In academic circles, humanities' decades-long decline is blamed for the proliferation of falsehoods on social media, crass political discourse, the rise in racism and the parlous state of democracy (not to mention our etiolated vocabularies).”

To many faculty, the turn away from the humanities is “particularly baffling now,” when, by most appearances, “the appetite for public contemplation of language, identity, historiography, and other longtime concerns of the seminar table is at a peak.” Sara Guyer, dean of Berkeley’s division of arts and humanities and director of the World Humanities Report, sees the return to these studies as students "trying to make sense of our current moment." 

From MMA’s Perspective

I broached this subject with Merion Mercy Academy’s English, history, and language departments, asking faculty:

  • Do you think the Humanities are as relevant/more important than ever?

  • What do students learn through the Humanities?

  • Are you seeing an increased interest in these courses at MMA?

Spanish teacher and language department chair Patricia Nowlan replied:

“The word humanities itself gives us a clear understanding of their importance. It comes from the Latin term humanitas—Cicero's concept that explored the development of human virtue. The humanities allow students to explore what it means to be human: our capacity for greatness, failure, honor and infamy. 

The study of languages in particular broadens a person's capacity for empathy. Studies show that those who learn a second language are more open minded, travel more, and better appreciate linguistic and cultural diversity.”

Students themselves appear to recognize the benefits of studying the humanities. Those in Patricia Sack’s English class noted that these courses “allow for interpretation…focus on the 'how'...have greater relevance to everyday life…and connect facts to feeling." According to one student, English classes in particular, “Teach you how to be a human being." Sack responded, “Studies have reported and teachers can attest that reading helps students develop empathy in addition to honing their critical thinking skills.”

Several Merion Mercy teachers addressed the differences between STEM and the humanities, but also pointed out their complementary nature:

Sack wrote:

“STEM courses, by their nature, often ask students to think in terms of black or white, right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate solutions or responses. They require students to focus on finding answers; whereas, humanities courses encourage students to identify and ponder questions. They ask students to dwell in gray areas: to consider multiple truths, perspectives, and solutions, and to ‘love the questions themselves’ as the poet Rilke urged.”

Dean of Students and former social studies teacher Paul Clementi, J.D. expressed concern with what he calls the STEM “educational evolution”: 

“I fully advocate for STEM courses, particularly for young women. But as a social studies teacher, I think the unintended consequence of the STEM educational evolution has been a vacuum in how we prepare students to engage in productive dialogue and discourse with those of differing cultural and political worldviews.” 

Philip Vinogradov, Director of Innovation, Teaching and Learning, said:

“In an age of automation and AI, it is more important than ever to teach students how to leverage their humanity, especially the capacity for empathy, collaboration, and imagination. As a former scientist and STEM teacher, I have always been frustrated by pedagogy that focuses on answers that are easy to look up in a reference book. Science is a way of knowing and learning about the natural world through testable hypotheses. In science, questions are infinitely more important than answers. The humanities build our capacity for imagination and asking interesting questions.”

Nowlan posited that we shouldn’t have one (STEM) without the other (humanities):

“Though the educational focus has shifted to STEM subjects, and careers in the STEM fields are often more highly valued and compensated, the complementary nature of STEM and the humanities must be reinforced. Without the humanities, the pursuit of scientific and mathematical knowledge means less, because the motivation behind it is no longer rooted in the ways we can harness technological innovation and progress for the good of humankind.” 

Clementi rounded out the conversation by saying: 

“I am deeply concerned about the ever increasing polarization in our world and specifically in our country driven by media and social media echo chambers. I do see a greater interest in humanities because in part students are craving ways to engage with each other more productively.”

Readers, what are your thoughts about the humanities? Share in the comments below!