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Humanities Stay Strong at American Colleges and Universities

Mar 03, 2010

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently released a Humanities Departmental Survey exploring the state of the liberal arts at 1,400 colleges and universities. The study found that while tenure-track positions are disappearing and the number of new faculty positions are in decline, student interest in disciplines such as English, history and foreign languages remains strong.

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The Evolution of the Humanities in the U.S.

Many people in the education community fear that the humanities are dying. As more people come to see college as essentially career training, there's a growing sense that students will turn away from a broad liberal arts education and focus on narrow, applied fields such as business or computer science.

When you look back at the second half of the twentieth century, history seems to bear this concern out. A recent analysis of U.S. Education Department data by The Chronicle of Higher Education shows that in 1967 humanities disciplines such as history, foreign languages and English dominated the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. But by 1987 the humanities' share of undergraduate education had shrunk significantly, with business and management experiencing a meteoric rise. The Chronicle attributes this shift to 'students' growing interest in well-paying jobs.'

History of Humanities and Business Bachelors Degrees in the 20th Century in the U.S.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Although the above graph shows that the relative share of business and humanities bachelor's degrees has remained the same over the past twenty years, The Chronicle's analysis indicates that humanities disciplines have in fact experienced steady growth since the late 1980s. Between 1988 and 2008, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in fields such as religion, philosophy and art history have grown between 75 and 125 percent. Other humanities fields, including general studies, history and foreign languages, have also experienced significant growth. Even English, which has been the slowest-growing field, saw a 50% increase in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the last two decades.

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The Humanities Today

The historical picture suggests that, while they're still much less popular than applied fields, the humanities are certainly not dying. But what about right now? If a rising interest in high salaried jobs (and therefore career training) led to a drop in humanities studies in the past, what effect has the recent recession had? It's not unreasonable to expect that, faced with an uncertain job market, students would turn to the subjects that seem most likely to translate into a job after graduation.

However, a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences suggests that this is not the case. The Humanities Departmental Survey (HDS), on which the academy collaborated with several scholarly societies, found that interest in the humanities has remained steady on college campuses over the past couple of years. The study focused on departments granting degrees in the following subjects:

  • art history
  • English
  • foreign languages
  • MLA combined English and foreign languages
  • history
  • history of science
  • linguistics

The academy collected data in the 2007-2008 academic year from roughly 1,400 American colleges and universities. The report showed that in the 2006-2007 school year, 122,100 undergraduates earned bachelor's degrees in one of the above fields, and 100,310 students completed a minor in the three largest fields, English, foreign languages and history. The survey also found that most institutions feel it's important for all students to have some exposure to the humanities: 87% of the departments surveyed said that their discipline was still included in the core requirements at their school.

The survey also took a close look at each of the above fields, reporting how many bachelor's degrees were earned in the 2006-2007 school year and how many juniors and seniors had declared a major in the respective subjects in the fall of 2007. The breakdown by discipline was as follows:

Discipline Degrees Awarded in 2006-2007 Declared Majors in 2007
Foreign Languages 28,710 75,570
English 54,960 126,930
History 38,700 107,350
Art History 5,400 13,070
Religion 5,160 13,820
MLA English / Foreign Language 2,980 9,360
Linguistics 1,720 4,600

The report notes that while some of the students who had declared their majors in the fall of 2007 may drop out or change fields, the numbers suggest that interest in most humanities disciplines is increasing.

This may reflect a quietly growing trend that sees undergraduate humanities studies as more valuable to professional careers than applied degree programs. A recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that most U.S. employers are dissatisfied with the quality of their young employees' education. The employers noted that while many recent graduates are highly trained in one very specific area, they lack the analytical abilities required to 'think on their feet' or learn new skills. Since the modern workplace requires employees to work in a flexible, interdisciplinary environment, applied degree programs are turning out to be too narrow. As the AAC&U study concludes, America's college students need more liberal arts training to be successful in their careers, not less. The foreign languages are an exceptionally good example of this phenomenon because they prepare students for the increasingly international business world while imparting the crucial skills of analysis and critical reasoning.

Young and Old Professors

The continued popularity of the humanities among students is not reflected in the state of humanities faculties. Many colleges and universities have been forced to cut costs in their teaching staff in the last couple of years by relying on non-tenured labor. The study found that in the 2006-2007 academic year, only 38% of faculty members in the departments surveyed had tenure. Things are also looking pretty bleak for young scholars hoping to enter academia. Most schools have a low turnover rate for humanities faculty and many have recently instituted hiring freezes, which means that there will be relatively few faculty positions available for graduate students in the surveyed fields.

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