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Colleges Revive the Humanities


November 9, 2010
by Suada Kolovic
Due to the drastic economic downturn, students are flocking to majors considered “safe” – economics, engineering and computer science – and steering clear of ones that develop creative thinking and imagination – the humanities. It makes sense, since the objective after graduation is to obtain a well-paying career to pay for that prestigious college education and the best way to do so, in the eyes of the majority of college students, is to select a major where the potential for a generous return on your investment is high. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, student interest in the humanities – which include the classics, literature, languages, history, philosophy, and religion – has dropped dramatically in recent years. Only 8 percent of American undergraduates majored in a humanities field in 2007, compared with 17 percent in 1966.

Due to the drastic economic downturn, students are flocking to majors considered “safe” – economics, engineering and computer science – and steering clear of ones that develop creative thinking and imagination – the humanities. It makes sense, since the objective after graduation is to obtain a well-paying career to pay for that prestigious college education and the best way to do so, in the eyes of the majority of college students, is to select a major where the potential for a generous return on your investment is high. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, student interest in the humanities – which include the classics, literature, languages, history, philosophy, and religion – has dropped dramatically in recent years. Only 8 percent of American undergraduates majored in a humanities field in 2007, compared with 17 percent in 1966.

At esteemed universities, including Cornell, Dartmouth, and Harvard, there is concern that without humanities students won’t develop the kind of critical thinking and empathy “necessary to solve the most pressing problems facing future generations.” Drew Faust, Harvard’s president, explained, “That’s a real shift from seeing an undergraduate education as general preparation in a wide range of fields to seeing undergraduate education as getting a particular vocational emphasis. People worry a lot about what you do with that degree. I think the change has been accelerated and intensified by people’s immediate concern of getting a job — especially with the increasing cost of higher education and the challenges in the economy.’’ (In case you were wondering, the most popular field of study at Harvard is economics.)

In response, colleges have begun pledging huge sums to their literature and arts departments, while others have begun erecting buildings. Among the universities attempting to restore interest in the humanities is Brandeis, which recently dedicated a new $22.5 million glass-and-slate hilltop home, called the Mandel Center for the Humanities. Harvard and Brown have also received millions to support new humanities initiatives.

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