Fewer students major in humanities

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RALEIGH — Most students attend colleges or universities primarily to acquire the knowledge, skills, and credentials required to get a rewarding job.

That’s what most college students say in surveys. That’s what most parents think they are helping to finance. You can also divine student intentions by looking at how they choose to spend most of their academic time while on campus.

According to the most-recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, American institutions awarded just over two million degrees to undergraduate students during the 2018-19 academic year. Some 19% of these graduates majored in business and another 26% in some other professional discipline such as health care, recreation and leisure, communications, or public service.

Another 84,000 undergraduate degrees, about 4% of the 2019 total, were in education. That’s another professional major, of course, but worth singling out for special consideration because it’s been shrinking rather than growing over time. In 1971, colleges and universities awarded 176,000 education degrees, about one-fifth of all undergraduate degrees conferred. By 2010, the number of education degrees had fallen to 102,000 (6% of the total).

What’s left? Degrees in STEM fields — physical sciences, technology, engineering, and math — made up 23% of all undergraduate degrees in 2019, up from 17% in 2010. The social sciences accounted for 15% of the 2019 total. The remaining 13% of majors were in the humanities, including such fields as literature, philosophy, religion, the visual and performing arts, and what the Education Department calls “area, ethnic, cultural, and group studies.”

More specifically, here are the disciplines showing outsized growth: computer and information science (124%); health professions (94%); engineering (74%); mathematics and statistics (63%); and parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies (61%). And here are some experiencing significant shrinkage: English language and literature (-26%), foreign language and literature (-23%), and philosophy and religious studies (-23%).

These are simply facts. What they mean is, naturally, a debatable proposition.

Some argue that many students are entering those vocation-specific majors reluctantly, having taken on substantial debt to finance the ever-escalating price tag an undergraduate degree. If relieved of the financial burden — either by debt forgiveness or higher state subsidy or both — they’d welcome the opportunity to major in literature, classics, history, or philosophy for their intrinsic value rather than having to prioritize the prospect for success in the job market.

Others argue that whatever the merits of the humanities may be in theory, current practice is a turnoff. Too many professors prefer to teach courses based on narrow, often idiosyncratic research interests rather than teaching about the great ideas, institutions, people, and works of art that students actually want to study. And because so much of the content is drenched in grievance, identity politics, and radical leftism, many potential majors are either bored or actively repelled by it.

Personally, I’d love to see more students majoring in the humanities. If policymakers agree, there are two steps they can take. First, reduce the actual cost of getting a degree (not the same as increasing subsidy). Second, depoliticize the subject matter.

Both are, sadly, easier said than done.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author of the forthcoming novel “Mountain Folk,” a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).

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