Saturday, November 2, 2013

Fewer college students major in the humanities: Is anyone surprised?

A few days ago, the New York Times carried a front-page story on the declining number of humanities majors at American colleges.  This shouldn't surprise anyone.  In fact, students have been shifting from the humanities to business majors for over 25 years.

There are two main reasons for the decline. First, as the Times noted, more and more young people see college as "a tool for job preparation" rather than an opportunity for deeper self understanding. And that makes sense as the price of attending college goes up. People don't go to college to find themselves any more. They go hoping to get a job after graduation.

Tuition costs are especially high at institutions like Stanford and Princeton, which were mentioned in the Times article. A person would almost have to be crazy to pay the sticker price of attending one of the expensive, elite institutions just for the privilege of getting an undergraduate degree in women's studies or medieval history.

Of course, as the College Board assured us in its recent report, a lot of people don't pay the sticker price--the sucker price--to attend an elite college.  A person who gets a grant or scholarship would incur a lot less debt to attend Stanford or Princeton than a person who takes out loans and pays the full cost.

And people who know they are going to law school, business school, or medical school after they graduate don't have to worry too much about their choice of majors. People who graduate at the top of their class at Harvard can major in anything they want as undergraduates.

But people who don't get a coveted grant or scholarship and who don't come from wealthy families should be extremely cautious about going to an elite college with the goal of getting a degree in the humanities. Apart from people who borrow money to attend for-profit colleges, the people hurt most by student-loan debt are probably the people who borrow $100,000 or more to get a humanities degree from Dartmouth, Emory, or some other overpriced, hoity toity higher education institution.

Apart from the increased cost of obtaining a college degree, I think there is a second explanation for a decline in humanities majors.  Let's face it, a lot of so-called humanities professors don't teach humanities anymore; they teach postmodernism. Instead of helping students search for ultimate truths, these professors guide students toward cynicism, relativism, and self-centeredness

And so we see the proliferation of degree programs in women's studies, African American studies, Hispanic studies, LGBT studies--programs that encourage college students to develop intensely self-focused perspectives on life and to abandon the search for universal truths.

Frankly, given the present state of humanities at American colleges, I am not sure we need humanities majors or humanities professors.  It is increasingly plain that great literature,  insightful histories, and perceptive interpretations of culture and society are coming from journalists, novelists, script writers, and self-employed intellectuals. For example, Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts and  David Benioff's City of Thieves are fine examples of creative work by non-academic writers that give readers a glimpse into European history during World War II and the pre-war years.  And Rick Atkinson, trained as a journalist, wrote a wonderful trilogy on the history of World War II.

If you want to know more about 20th century European history, read Benioff, Larson, and Atkinson. Why pay $5,000 to hear a Stanford professor give fifteen history lectures and then give you a grade of C+?


Tamar Lewin. Interest Fading in Humanities, Colleges Worry. New York Times, October 31, 2013, p. 1.

Jennifer Levitz & Douglas Belkin. Humanities Fall from Favor. Wall Street Journal. June 6, 2013. Accessible at:

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