By Rex Provost
The humanities are dying.
At least, that’s what we see from college statistics, and what we hear from various sources of outcry. One of these sources is William Deresiewicz, ex-Yale professor and author of the book Excellent Sheep. Deresiewicz claims that arts and humanities are being pushed out by more “practical” majors, such as economics.
“In 1995, economics was the most popular major at three of the top ten universities or top ten liberal arts colleges… on the most recent lists,” Deresiewicz writes, “In 2013, it was the biggest at a minimum of eight.”
Other studies back Deresiewicz up. For example, the statistics provided by the American Association of Colleges and Universities showed humanities majors have dropped by half since the 1960’s. In 2010, only 7% of college graduates majored in humanities.
The cause of this decline has been attributed to many different developments. Deresiewicz points to a decreasing amount of intellectual curiosity among students, hence the title of his book. Others point to “ a crisis of leadership” in higher education, like Union College Professor Christine Henseler, who heads a think tank called the New York 6, devoted to improving the arts and humanities. Perhaps one of the biggest factors, however, is the rise in tuition costs. Tuition costs can be a big factors, as other trivial costs that students spend on services like Aim High writing services can be neglected, in contrast to tuition costs.
Humanities vs. Tuitions
“What’s happened is school has gotten incredibly expensive and at the same time the job market for graduating seniors has become much more difficult,” said Professor Philip Gould, chair of Brown University’s English department, “I think there’s a lot of pressure, and it’s understandable in America today to choose majors or concentrations which seem to be marketable.”
Students seem to agree. One Brown Sophomore, Phil Lamb, transferred from Sussex University, a school in England, and landed at Brown, which has a tuition fee four times higher than that of Sussex.
Lamb transferred to be able to “pick and choose from a range of different courses and not just be stuck on one path,” the approach of most universities outside the United States. But the high tuition costs have begun to weigh on his mind.
“In no other advanced country is it this expensive to go to school, and it definitely adds an aspect of guilt,” he said, “It makes me feel guilty to do anything that’s not on a track.”
To William Deresiewicz, this goes against everything college stands for: “The whole idea of American higher education, the fact that you get to study different things in college… is based on the profoundly true idea borne out over generations that it’s better in every respect to not just have a pre-professional training,” he said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average tuition fees in the U.S. have increased from about $4,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 1983 to almost $24,000 in 2015. In regards to private institutions, the increase has been even more pronounced, sky rocketing from $7,000 to $35,000. For one semester at Sussex, Lamb paid $2,500, in comparison to the $32,000 he is paying at Brown. His grandfather pays the majority of his tuition.
After studying only biology in England, Lamb took advantage of the wider curriculum at Brown, taking public policy, a class on urban crime, public health, and an advanced biology course. As of now, he plans to concentrate in either public health or biology, and will maybe go to law school. He aspires to become a reputed federal criminal defense attorney san diego.
In Lamb’s mind, Deresiewicz’s view of what college should be “is great in Happyland,” but when the real world hits, he wants to be prepared with immediately employable skills ready to pay off debt.
Since coming to Brown, Lamb claims, the open curriculum is disappointing and “doesn’t feel particularly useful.”
It’s not that he dislikes the open curriculum, but more that he’s come to realize “nothing is worth this hike in price.” Lamb figures that Brown’s system is great for students who are unsure of what they want to do in life, but for him, now that he’s chosen his path, he’d rather dive in completely.
“I feel like I shouldn’t have ignored the advice I got from people back home, which was, ‘Finish your first degree and then you can always do a masters in something else.’ I should have probably stayed with that route,” he said.
This pressure to focus in something practical, to have “employable” skills, is increasingly rampant amongst students. To Professor Gould, this pressure makes sense, especially for those coming from a lower income background.
“A lot of Brown undergrads face the same issues with debt, and so they want to be able to pay it off. There are families who are a little skittish of an English degree in that context,” said Gould.
To Professor Christine Henseler, this skittishness is not necessary. Henseler’s work with humanities departments through New York Six has made her realize that it’s not necessarily the subjects themselves that are in crisis in today’s society, it is their portrayal.
“We need to do a better job… articulating that there are a lot of wonderful, exciting jobs out there that need the arts and humanities,” said Henseler.
She claims that the arts and humanities faculty members are often “repeating ourselves” and “speaking to ourselves,” and therefore people are unable to grasp why the humanities are still important. To try to combat this problem, Henseler founded the New York Six Think Tank, which looks to “capture the surprising and transformative ways in which the arts and humanities are vital and relevant to this day and age.”
Gould, too, has moved to rebrand the face of humanities, specifically in his English department, to address “the declining numbers of humanities majors at Brown and nationally. We did it to get our market share.”
The English program at Brown has become more professionalized, with a new nonfiction writing track, and it has reshaped its first year classes to tell new students “how literature matters.”
Gould claimed that “we really weren’t pushed by a utilitarian pressure,” but that if one was going to make that case, “you have to convince students and the public that the ability to read and write and think analytically and critically is a valuable set of talents and strategies that can migrate to many different kinds of [occupations].”
And so for the Phil Lamb’s of the college world, the kids who have a cloud of debt hanging over their heads when making any academic decisions, professors like Gould and Henseler want to prove that the humanities are far from obsolete.
One way both Gould and Henseler see this happening is through integrative scholarships– majors that combine the humanities with other subjects.
“The future is in the hybrid, the remixing, the mashed up, the interdisciplinary,” said Henseler, who argues that majors need to stop being divided and need to work together to adapt to a fast-changing economy.
“It’s not an either/or scenario– it’s both,” she states, “The future is in learning that is both foundational and agile.”
Gould describes how Brown is becoming an “interdisciplinary enterprise,” that although there may be fewer English majors, there is about the same amount of students taking English courses. To him, this shift towards the interdisciplinary is positive.
Henseler, too, sees a bright tomorrow: “When I look at the future I actually see a lot of excitement, I see a renaissance of talking about the arts and humanities in ways that are incredibly relevant in today’s day and age.”
Of course, there are those who are more skeptical. Deresiewicz, for example, claims that, “Everything I’ve read, and everyone I’ve talked to… tells me that things are not getting better.”
He also doesn’t believe that the problem lies in a misrepresentation of the humanities, although he wishes that were true– that it were as simple as telling people humanities can garner jobs.
“People have been saying it over and over again… I collect article after article that says it. The problem is, people aren’t hearing it. And they’re not hearing it because they refuse to hear it… They can’t believe you, because they’ve been told so relentlessly by everyone else the opposite,” he laments.
While there is evidence to support that Henseler and Gould’s approaches are effective, and have been effective, Deresiewicz may also have a point. To students like Lamb, the humanities still strike them as unnecessary to the goal of getting a job. Lamb put it bluntly: “I don’t think they are beneficial.”
Moments after Lamb made his bold claim, his roommate, Lucas Troadec, tore off his headphones and sat up in his bed. Troadec, also a sophomore, had taken several courses in the humanities and had a bone to pick. From France, he speaks with a thick accent.
“It’s a really important thing to be able to do, to think. Even if you’re going for sciences, even if you want to be an engineer, literature is going to give you a sense of what it means to be a citizen,” Troadec retorted.
Troadec continued to say that he didn’t think tuition fees affected most students’ decisions in regards to choices in classes.
“If you look at France, where studying is free, people actually also choose to study sciences [and other “practical majors”] instead of humanities at the same rate as the U.S.,” he said. He argued that the reason people chose more immediately employable majors was due to a societal pressure.
This semester, Troadec is only taking social sciences, but he plans on taking humanities in the future. He is most interested in International Relations, and will most likely concentrate in the study.
Although he isn’t pursuing it for the job opportunities, he is still concerned about the practicality of what he concentrates in. He said it was between IR or Anthropology, but International Relations “opens more doors.”
So, of course, there are many points of views and cases to be made as to the state of humanities and why they are what they are. But something that almost everyone could agree on is that tuition fees are far too high in the United States.
Gould argued that tuition fees are so high in private institutions that for many lower to middle class Americans, “it’s an uphill battle with a lot of debt to pay.” So much so, he said, that, “taking on a trade or going to nursing school… is maybe a more rational choice.”
Deresiewicz claims the solution lies in the public funding of higher education, a solution he says is one that is becoming more and more attainable– “Bernie Sanders is talking about it, and the other democratic candidates… are talking at least about debt-free college.”
Indeed, the affordability of college has been touched on by candidates in the democratic debates. Clinton states her plan is to “enable anyone to go to a public college or university tuition free,” although if one could pay, one would. Sanders, meanwhile, insists on making college free for all, saying, “A college degree today…is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago.”
And although Deresiewicz claims that many students in elite schools lack intellectual curiosity, he doesn’t think the problem is a lost cause. If he could still be at Yale, he said, he would be: “It was a job that I really liked, and I did like my students and I did think, even though I have problems with the institution, that you can do good for people when teaching.” However, he was not offered tenure and was forced to leave.
Henseler’s work with New York Six may be coming to a close, as the two year funding the program obtained is about to end, but she is looking to get as much out of the last remaining months as possible.
“What we are concentrating on now… is harnessing the voices [of students], and also working on putting a different vision of possible career opportunities out there by engaging professors and students and bringing professionals to campus whose professions might be a little different from what are usually expected as arts and humanities careers,” she said.
More generally, Henseler adds, “we need in state support to schools, when it comes to the internationalization and diversification of the students.”
While their approaches may be different, Gould, Henseler, and Deresiewicz agree that changes need to be made. The bottom line, as put by Gould, is “college is prohibitively expensive, and it’s prohibitively competitive.”
Rex Provost is a sophomore at Brown University, where he is concentrating in Literary Arts. He spent his first year of college at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts studying film.
Professor Philip Gould
Professor Christine Henseler
Professor William Deresiewicz
Dean Yolanda Rome
Heller, Nathan. “Poison Ivy: Are Elite Colleges Bad for the Soul?” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/poison-ivy>.
“Humanities by the Numbers.” Association of American Colleges and Universities. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.aacu.org/aacu_news/aacunews13/august13/facts_figures>.
Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Free, 2014. Print.
Mulhere, Kaitlin. “Where the 2016 Democratic Candidates Stand on College Affordability.” Time. Time, 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://time.com/money/4073340/democratic-candidates-college-affordability/>.