The humanities have taken a beating in the last several decades as a growing number of college students look to major in more marketable fields like technology and the sciences rather than in disciplines like philosophy, history or religion. Quentin Fottrell of MarketWatch explains that the trend is most noticeable in the increasingly popular setting of online courses.
According to a recently published report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the number of students pursuing humanities majors in college is dropping precipitously. Half as many humanities degrees were awarded in 2010 as in 1966 when 14% of all college graduates majored in the area. Even schools with historically strong humanities programs like Harvard are noticing the drop. Between 1954 and 2012, the percentage of humanities majors at the Ivy League school dropped from 36% to 20%.
For a picture of what the curriculum of tomorrow may look like, one need look no further than the online course catalog. Humanities enrollments are among the least popular of all online academic subjects. A 2011 paper, “Learning at a Distance,” published by the government’s National Center for Education Statistics estimated that only 14% of humanities majors took even a single online course. That proportion is smaller than in nearly all other academic disciplines, including computer sciences and education (27%), business (24%), general studies (23%), health care (22%) and engineering (16%).
In one sense, these findings are no surprise. Humanities courses are more difficult to translate into an online environment that caters to tens of thousands of students instead of a dozen. Education experts point to the fact that it’s easier to machine-grade a math exam than a philosophy paper.
“Math and science courses can be easily graded online,” says Alexandria Walton Radford, associate program director of postsecondary education at RTI International, a nonprofit research organization. Walton Radford, who wrote the 2011 NCES report, says a typical English essay takes more time and discussion. “Some colleges are working out solutions to that with peers reading papers and generating feedback,” she says.
And, as ever, money talks. The employment picture for humanities graduates isn’t the sunniest – especially as the country still struggles to emerge from the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Employers are publicly clamoring for job candidates with technology training. If there’s an overwhelming need in the businesses world for those holding Russian Literature degrees, the business world is keeping awfully quiet about it.
Still, according to Fottrell, humanities degrees have a role to play in America’s economy as well.
But the humanities are important to the business world, academics say, for tasks ranging from a company’s efforts to expand successfully overseas to how it interacts with its customers, academics say.