Harvard Encourages Humanities Majors in the STEM Age

Harvard University

June 10, 2013

Record-high student debt and a difficult job market may be steering many college students away from the humanities and toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- or STEM -- disciplines. A new report, "The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future," revealed that this is a problem -- and one that Harvard aims to fix.

The new publication is part of a series of faculty-written reports collectively called the Humanities Project, the Harvard Gazette stated. The project's goal: To make humanities a more cross-disciplinary field. The Wall Street Journal cited data from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute showing that in 1966, 14 percent of college students nationally majored in a humanities subject, but by 2010, that dropped to just 7 percent. Enrollment among STEM majors, in contrast, has increased, according to The Boston Globe.

Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities, stated that Harvard had been eyeing the trend for the past ten years. "There's a way in which the liberal arts get undermined by a more instrumental view of education," she said.

Part of the problem might be that students who major in the humanities tend to face higher unemployment rates than STEM graduates, and jobs matter in this age of what The Wall Street Journal calls rising tuition and sky-high levels of student debt. Data cited in the article indicated that in 2010, recent graduates who majored in English faced a 9.8 percent unemployment rate, compared to about 9.5 percent among religious studies and philosophy majors. Chemistry graduates, on the other hand, were unemployed at a rate of 5.8 percent.

According to the Harvard Gazette, "Mapping the Future" suggests that Harvard needs to find ways to underscore the real value of a humanities degree. Harvard humanities alums have gone on to become journalists, lawyers and comedy writers. National statistics also suggest that law and medical schools admit majors from the humanities at a rate comparable to other branches of studies.

Sorensen told The Boston Globe that the humanities also cultivate important skills that help students find their way in a rapidly-changing world. "The arts and humanities are unique in their potential to help students develop the skills and wisdom needed to thrive in the digitized, globalized, discovery-driven economy of the 21st century," she said.

The report's authors suggest a number of tactics that could help Harvard rekindle student interest in the humanities, including creating "gateway" courses to attract students to the field. According to The Wall Street Journal, the authors also suggest developing a broader interdisciplinary framework to retain students, as well as an internship network that helps underscore the value of such a degree in the workforce.

Sorensen explained that those in the humanities need to show "what it is our work does so they don't think we're just living up in the clouds all the time."

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


"Harvard seeks to boost student interest in the humanities," bostonglobe.com, June 6, 2013, Peter Schworm

"Humanities Fall From Favor," wsj.com, June 6, 2013, Jennifer Levitz and Douglas Belkin

"Mapping the future," news.harvard.edu, June 6, 2013, Corydon Ireland

"The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future," artsandhumanities.fas.harvard.edu

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