The Beginning of the End for the Humanities?

Perhaps not, when the jobs of the future depend on skills that have been the hallmark of the liberal arts.

In an article on Oct. 30, The New York Times reported that in Stanford University’s undergraduate division, 45 percent of the faculty are in the humanities, but only 15 percent of the students are humanities majors. Harvard University has seen a 20 percent drop in humanities majors in the last decade, and nationally only 7 percent of students are majoring in the humanities, half the percentage seen in 1970. Elizabeth City State University, a historically black university in North Carolina, may eliminate degree programs in seven programs, including history, in part because of declining student interest in these majors.

Do the humanities still have a place in American higher education? Or are colleges and universities destined to become a collection of training programs for the professions? Is there no middle ground?

Leading humanists are fighting back. Carol Geary Schneider, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, is quoted in Inside Higher Ed (Oct. 29), calling the proposed cuts at Elizabeth City “shocking and potentially debilitating.” Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College in California, and a self-described double humanities major as an undergraduate, provides a list of highly successful individuals who were philosophy majors, ranging from George Soros to the Dalai Lama (Huffington Post, Nov. 1).

But indignation on the one hand, and a list of aging (or deceased) humanities majors who were high achievers on the other, can hardly be expected to influence the choice of academic majors among today’s 18-year-olds. Can’t we find a more compelling argument?

Consider two recent reports. The first, from Burning Glass Technologies, titled The Art of Employment: How Liberal Arts Graduates Can Improve Their Labor Market Prospects, notes that between July 2012 and June 2013 there were 954,996 job postings nationally that were open to recent graduates in the liberal arts (a designation that consists of the humanities and the social sciences), with an average entry-level salary of $42,731. Significantly, the report noted that liberal arts graduates with a minor or internship in a professional area could make themselves eligible for consideration for another 861,572 jobs that required some technical skills, and that have an average entry-level salary of $49,052 – a premium of more than $6,000 over jobs without a technical skills requirement.

So it may not be necessary to plan a memorial service for the humanities just yet!

A second very recent report provides additional support for the continuing value of the humanities, and the liberal arts in general. Published by Third Way, and titled Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work, the report makes a compelling, albeit indirect, case for the liberal arts. Consider the following quote from the report:

“The future of middle class work will necessarily have to rely on uniquely human brain strengths: flexibility – the ability to process and integrate many kinds of information to perform a complex task, such as solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information – acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others.”

The authors point out that the job market in America is hollowing out, as are family incomes. Job growth in the future will be in low-end service jobs, and relatively high-end professional and managerial. Jobs in the middle of the traditional pay spectrum, in fabrication and production, will continue to diminish in number, as computers and robots replace people in jobs that can be automated.

So let’s summarize:

  1. At colleges and universities across the country, there is a declining interest in the humanities, and in liberal arts in general, at the expense of growing interest in professional programs, because of concern regarding the employability of liberal arts graduates.
  2. But liberal arts graduates could almost double the number of positions for which they would be eligible if they simply augmented their major with a smattering of professional courses and/or experiences.
  3. And the jobs of the future will increasingly depend on precisely those skills that have been the long-standing hallmark of the liberal arts: integration of information from various sources; problem solving; working with new information; communication.

Over the past two years, Roger Williams University has been aggressively promoting the virtues of an undergraduate education that combines the liberal arts with professional studies, to ensure strengths in both areas. Through a careful selection of complementary majors and minors, plus project-based learning experiences and internships for all of our students, we are endeavoring to prepare students not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of success, both at work and in their communities.

These recent reports seem to validate the direction RWU has taken. The dichotomy between the liberal arts and the professional programs is clearly a false one. A college education today must include both.