The proportion of students who major in the humanities in the United States has fallen from a high of nearly one in five in the late 1960s to one in 20 in 2015, the last year for which the figure is available, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The trend is similar in Canada, where humanities enrollment plummeted by more than 5 percent — the biggest drop of any discipline — in just the one year ending in 2015, also the most recent period available, and where the share of students majoring in the humanities is an equally low one in 20, the government agency Statistics Canada reports
“It’s pressure from parents. ‘There are no jobs.’ You name it,” said Anna Moro, a linguistics and languages professor who teamed up with Mohammad to design the new program.
Even the outside experts who reviewed the Integrated Business and Humanities program for accreditation purposes, including a member of the McMaster sociology department, unanimously recommended dropping the word “humanities” from the name. (Backers fought for it, saying the incorporation of the humanities was the very thing that made their approach to business different.) And while the target for the first class was 80 students, only 51 signed on.
As associate dean of humanities, Moro is responsible for the challenging job of recruiting humanities majors. While many young prospects are attracted to the humanities, she said, “It was the parents who came to the recruitment events who were saying, ‘We’re going to check out nursing or engineering.’”
At a time of spiraling tuition, conceded Moro, it’s gotten harder to justify a major without an evident immediate financial benefit. Those parents “are worried about the economic and overall well-being of their children,” she said.
They’re not entirely wrong. Right out of college, humanities majors in the United States earn an average of $5,000 a year less than professionals and pre-professionals, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges & Universities, or AAC&U, which represents liberal-arts colleges. And while they catch up to and pull slightly ahead of those groups by the time they reach their 40s, they still make less over the course of their careers than engineers and people with degrees in the physical and natural sciences and math. In Canada, graduates from some humanities programs make half or less than half of what engineers and people with degrees in business administration earn, StatsCan found.
But these figures overlook the importance of the humanities as a foundation for all kinds of jobs, said Moro. “They miss the point that in the long run it’s the people with the liberal arts backgrounds who end up being CEOs,” she said.
Employers highly value what humanities majors learn in college, focus groups and surveys show. More than nine out of 10 say a job candidate’s capacity for thinking and communicating clearly and solving complex problems is more important than his or her major, according to an AAC&U poll. More than three-quarters favor applicants who understand other cultures.
“People are, like, ‘You’re studying what? How will you find a job?’”
As the humanities decline, business has become the largest undergraduate major. But a Carnegie Foundation report found that undergraduate business education is narrow and doesn’t challenge students to think creatively or ask important questions. (Carnegie is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
Students in the new McMaster program will be required to take a course from humanities faculty called “Insight and Inquiry: Questions to Change to World” and use what they learn to determine what data to collect and analyze for their accounting courses.
They’ll cover “Sentence and Communication Structure in Modern English” and “Language and Society” to closely parse financial statements and earnings reports.
They’ll consider the varying humanities and business definitions of the word “value,” Mohammad said, citing as an example the short-term benefit but long-term cost of development patterns in Houston that may have exacerbated damage from Hurricane Harvey, or the seeming savings but social consequences of importing manufactured goods from China. Requiring business majors to take such courses could help revive public interest in the humanities. At the very least, to hear Moro and Mohammad tell it, it gives cover to people who still aspire to study subjects like those.
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