HAMILTON, Ontario — On a sun-splashed quadrangle suffused with the enthusiasm of a new semester, Pearl Bakhtiari sat cross-legged on the grass and made a passionate case for her major in philosophy and minor in French.
“Our world is becoming more black and white every day,” said Bakhtiari, a third-year student here at McMaster University near Toronto. “The humanities add some color into that.”
She admitted that her choice of academic disciplines elicited anxiety from relatives and friends concerned about more practical issues, however.
“People are, like, ‘You’re studying what? How will you find a job?’”
It’s a fast-spreading skepticism that has resulted in significant drops in the number of students majoring in the humanities on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.
At stake is not only whether people will be able to interpret Shakespeare, say advocates of subjects including English, history, language, philosophy, and the visual and performing arts. It’s the essential skills they say these fields teach, and that focus groups suggest employers want.
The proportion of students who major in the humanities has fallen from a high of nearly one in five to one in 20.
Now, after four years of planning, a new program at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business proposes to make this connection more concrete. It’s a business major aimed at turning out what it says will be future corporate leaders, for which students also are required to take philosophy, language, culture and other humanities courses toward an eventual degree in business.
“We did the research about what employers are looking for and we kept coming back to the same things: critical thinking, communication, cultural perspective,” said Emad Mohammad, the director of the new program, called Integrated Business and Humanities. “But the School of Business couldn’t teach these skills. We didn’t have the in-house expertise to teach philosophy and history and English.”
It found a willing partner in the humanities department, which had been pushing the same idea for so long that Dean of Humanities Ken Cruikshank said the plan had been sitting in a drawer for nearly 20 years.
“When the business dean came in here to say he wanted to do this, I laughed and went to a file and said, ‘Here you go,’” Cruikshank said, blowing the dust off an imaginary document.
Such long-sought partnerships are serious matters and important potential lifelines for humanities faculties, including at McMaster, that are struggling to prove their relevance in the face of big enrollment declines.
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