Recent years have seen sharp increases in the number of college students enrolling in STEM majors. Meanwhile, enrollment in humanities majors is in sharp decline. Are the humanities dying, and is STEM education to blame?
As Benjamin Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northwestern, writes for The Atlantic, “the big-four humanities fields – philosophy, history, languages, and English – are at risk of dipping below 100,000 degrees for the first time in almost 20 years.” While the increase in STEM numbers is undoubtedly a good thing, academics and others in humanities-focused fields are growing concerned for the future collegiate-level humanities education.
One reason new college students might be wary of committing themselves to the humanities is concern that it won't lead to the same employment opportunities as a STEM career path.
“What I see with our student population is that students are very anxious to place in a job that earns maximum salary and maximum health benefits,” says Dr. JoAnn Springer, an English and literature professor at Rio Hondo College. She explains to Parentology that with the country’s population aging steadily, jobs in hospitals, clinics, and other medical facilities are in high demand. Many of these jobs offer pay and benefits that may be more difficult to find in humanities-focused occupations.
While pay and solid benefits are a major factor, many high schools and universities are also putting increasing energy into recruitment for STEM programs.
“At our college we have, I would say, almost a very aggressive STEM faculty,” explains Springer, who points out that “they highly recruit in high schools, they highly recruit among incoming freshmen, they have really good grant money.”
Local medical facilities also have an interest in making sure STEM programs stay filled with fresh talent. “Some of the local hospitals have even donated money to our programs on campus for these things,” says Springer. “They need students to come out and be trained, and also be young, because they’re cheaper to hire.”
With schools doing so much to demonstrate the career opportunities STEM has to offer, educators like Springer worry that students are underestimating the opportunities the humanities might hold for them as a result. “If we go to the ‘soft’ subjects – let’s say English, history, philosophy, the humanities – it’s very hard to show students a clear pathway to a job, and it has been for a long time. Especially a job out of education.”
Many students feel that the only viable career option for humanities majors is teaching, which Springer says is far from the truth.
“I think the multiplication of outlets for writing, marketing, and branding is really a help, and it makes these ‘soft’ skills, in my view, more essential than ever.” Among other things, Springer explains that large corporations often look for graduates with humanities backgrounds to aid in consumer-focused rebranding.
Beyond being a viable start to a career, Springer believes that an education in the humanities can help people further develop emotional intelligence and empathy. “We can assist the growth of empathy by reading literature, by truly understanding history,” says Springer. “It’s only really by going in your mind into someone else’s experience that you can grapple with different perspectives and get more of a 360 view of an issue or a problem.”
While it’s necessary and healthy for college students to plan for the future, the troubling possibility exists that today’s pupils try too hard to predict success based on their field of study, a practice that Schmidt discouraged.
“…the idea that students should choose majors by trying to guess what the job market will reward several years later is often nuts,” he wrote. Not only are these attempts to see the future largely ineffective, but declining humanities enrollment seem to indicate that students who might be drawn towards the humanities are turning away in the hopes of larger checks down the line. Furthermore, if students continue to underestimate the value of the humanities, experts believe we run the risk of losing some of the most important and vital elements of our society and cultural identity.