Friday, September 25, 2009

The Decline of Humanities Majors

This interesting piece in the American Scholar breaks some news of which I was only dimly aware: the number of humanities majors has declined steadily over the last generation. The headline is a little misleading--even though it focuses on the decline of English majors, the piece goes on to note the drop is just as apparent in other areas of the humanities, such as foreign languages and history. No surprise about what's filled the vaccum, of course: from the '70-'71 to '03-'04 school years, the ratio of business majors in American higher education went from 13.7 to 21.9%. The author, a former president of a couple of leading private colleges, suggests one main reason for the change is the country's slow shift in emphasis away from private colleges and universities, which have historically nurtured the humanities, to public institutions, which mostly have not. Three years ago, we noted with interest a book about the many ways in which English majors remain in demand. We were equally interested in a comment our friend
Ron Copfer made in that string: how, as a longtime employer, he had come to appreciate the contributions of English majors.


At 2:56 AM, Blogger Mariana Soffer said...

Interesting post, I guess we can relate this to several issues.
1. OF course always money, they earn less than the others.
2. They have less prestigious than the others. and also less than art.
3. There are no clear guidelines in this fields as there are in others.
4. Part of it is being absorved by fields such as computer science in the nlp area.
5. The end of the utopias influence this.
.Humans well being is not conssidered so important as productivity.

I think more efforts should be done to strengthen this fields, because they can be really helpful to humanity.

Thanks for making me think

At 7:59 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

All good points, and true, Mariana. Of course, money is at the root of all of this. But the irony here is that with the pace of knowledge-change increasing in every field, the kinds of things you learn as a computer major or in business or engineering school are mostly passe a decade later. What endures over one's lifetime and career are all the things in which the humanities train the mind: how to think, how to persuade, how to marshall evidence, how to identify faulty reasoning. In this way, they ungergird and support all the specific paths of study, from those mentioned above to medicine and a hundred others. Enlightened employers have always understood this.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Driving towards home across deepest darkest PA and OH (waves as he drives by!), I was listening to a two-CD Prairie Home Companion compilation called "English Majors." There is a lot of great stuff on that CD. It's all humor, of course, but nonetheless the message gets through that an English major can go on to achieve relative fame and fortune. (The segments with Dave Barry and Billy Collins as guest stars made me laugh out loud, as did the 10 minute "MacBeth" with "celebrity actors" in the lead roles, such as Mr. Rogers as MacBeth, Julia Child as Lady MacBeth, and Bill Clinton as MacDuff.) Highly recommended.

The point about public universities, which Marianna emphasizes, is that in many cases (not in all) they serve to feed to industrial worker complex, they feed technological service, and some of the largest of them create cogs in the machine rather than independent thinkers. Although I have to say that I don't blame the universities for that so much as the cultural climate in general. If our culture and paradigm have become more mechanized and industrialized, the universities are reflecting and supporting those trends rather than driving them. Big universities don't really DRIVE anything, they can only respond.

I also want to make the point that small colleges within big universities remain quite capable of fostering good humanities education. I attended the School of Music at the University of Michigan, and we were our own college on North Campus, separate enough to be quite independent-minded. It was a good overall humanities education for most attendees.

So it IS possible.

On the flip side, one wonders about why there's been an increase in business majors, as opposed to, say, science majors. One supposes that in part it is again cultural. In many ways, Oliver Stone's movie "Wall Street" even though it was a fable and a satire, was prophetic. (People always misinterpret Stone's movies; usually because they don't get that he's doing parables and fables, with a moral. They think he's just moralizing and preaching, when in fact he's doing something more mythic. But then, any English major could explain metaphor and symbol to movie reviewers, which apparently most movie reviewers seem to not know about. Hail the English major!)

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Britta said...

Even though my dad was a university professor, I remember clearly the case study of a TA I had in history; he was clearly smart, hard working, dedicated to teaching his discussion section well yet he shared with us the profound difficulty he was facing in the humanities job market after he finished his PhD. It was a path I did not want to take myself. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. Should I have looked to the professor of the course as a role model instead? Maybe. Sure, reforming the university system would help the American Scholar's plight, but reforming the American outlook is more than just the work of the university. I have had great models in critical thinking among my high school teachers, my friends (college educated and not), my family. I don't know. I wouldn't think the world would be very good if everyone was a college lecturer, but just a well-rounded learner.

At 11:16 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'm glad that both Art and Britta (how nice to see your name here again, BW) have pointed out something essential, which I should have noted as well: that the public universities aren't so much driving this phenomenon as they are reflecting the direction of the larger culture in which they operate.

Britta, the humanities job market as you discuss it in the narrower sense of the teaching assistant may well be a difficult one. But you and I (and of course many other career writers and editors we know) are examples of how to leverage humanities majors for careers outside academe. That's the crucial point I'm hoping to make here.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Britta said...

Absolutely. My aunt was a great evangelist for Northwestern as a place where the journalism curriculum was married with a strong grouping of non-journalism requirements, meaning I took Shakespeare, South African history, opera appreciation, astronomy, a poetry workshop and more. My absence, by the way, is not through any lack of fondness for the forum, but a relentless schedule of three business trips in four weeks for major presentations. Aiee!

At 3:39 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I've noticed there's been some controversy about Northwestern J-School's possible name change, taking away the word journalism (presumably so as to be more inclusive for PR). Any thoughts about that as a Northwestern alum? And any word on how that would impact the curriculum?

At 3:41 AM, Blogger sevnetus said...

In "1984" I was an Arts and Sciences Economics graduate. The economy sucked and I was not rewarded with a cushy job. "I took the road less traveled, and that has mad all the difference." I missed your seminar at the library Saturday because my sleep schedule is late, but I hope it went well. I have a new post...

At 8:43 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, for stopping by, S. Hope your sleep is going well. Heck, some folks were probably dozing off in the back of the room that morning.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Britta said...

The curriculum, the fundraising, the whole emphasis has already put the Integrated Marketing Communications program and its spinoffs in the fore at Northwestern's Medill. Changing the name, in my opinion, would at least be in keeping with the other changes they've made, though I would prefer it not have to happen. As an alum, I am concerned about their reputation continuing to be as esteemed as it can possibly be. But I was already seeing that shift when I was there in the early 90s. I attribute some to then Dean Michael Janeway, who is now at Columbia, some to the university which has been tough on professors -- refusing to adapt its standards of tenure to the discipline by valuing obscure academic research over journalistic projects and great classroom presence -- and some to the inescapable model of Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Business that is a national leader when it comes to marrying campus curriculum with market forces. I guess what frustrates me about the whole thing is that the curriculum changes and the possible name change are fine for the kids who are in the program now, but I feel like the school is not doing as much to support or encourage many of the graduates from my year and before who are either trying to stay in more classical journalism jobs, who are working in fields like media law or nonprofit advocacy, or who are simply not sure where to turn next. If Medill becomes a training ground for marketing, pr, advertising and branding only, that can send a sort of "abandon all hope" kind of message which I think is woefully premature despite the tumult of communications overall today. I look at the journalism and investigative reporting careers of some of the Medill names I admire, like David Protess and Christine Brennan, and I hope that others will rise to that level no matter what the school is called.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Well said, Britta. The smart people at the good journalism schools understand that the current disruptions in the journalism industry actually make their tasks all the more vital, since they sit at the intersection of innovation and training the next generation. That problem of valuing absurd, obscure and unread "research" in the humanities--which foolishly try to ape the scientific approach of the hard sciences--is a problem academy-wide, but of course is even more scandalous in the area of journalism, where actually doing it at the highest level (and thus serving as a model to students) should be valued above all else, along with good teaching. I wouldn't hold my breath, however, waiting for any of this to change.


Post a Comment

<< Home