The humanities are worth saving
March 22, 2023
It seems obvious that the humanities—the study of what it means to be human in society, according to the National Humanities Center—should always be prevalent, especially in education.
Recent trends in college humanities enrollment would beg to differ.
Over the past decade, the number of students enrolled in English and history majors has declined by one-third, with the number of students majoring in any humanities subject dropping by 17%, according to a Feb. 27 New Yorker article.
In the midst of this rapid decline, I spoke with two humanities professors about what might be causing it and why the humanities are worth saving.
The ambiguity of what to do with a humanities degree is arguably the cause of both attraction and fear. A degree in the humanities allows students to pursue a job in a wide variety of fields, but many students find it safer to walk a direct path by choosing a major that leads to a specific job.
“I think on the one hand, the cost of higher education has made people demand a much faster payoff from [their] degree,” said Abigail McGowan, a professor of history and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
She gave the example of accounting, where the major prepares students for accounting jobs. This is not the case for the humanities. While there may be namesake jobs like a historian or a philosopher, the paid opportunities for these positions are few and far between.
When talking about why people are apprehensive about pursuing humanities, McGowan cited the school-to-job path being less clear as a factor.
“It’s the uncertainty of the path, it’s the sort of wide openness of it, which is the strength of a humanities degree,” she said. “It can prepare you for anything, but the lack of a direct pipeline, I think, scares a lot of people.”
Despite the hesitancy of students, McGowan stands by her belief that the humanities are crucial.
“We live in a world in which the choice of this word versus that word or the ways in which you make a pitch or present an idea is absolutely going to determine some of the success of that idea,” she said. “It’s not like words don’t matter.”
McGowan maintains that the questions at the heart of the humanities will always be prevalent, even in our world of growing technology.
“One of the things that’s so striking to me and in a moment in which we’re defined by so much technology, is that the things that really capture people’s attention [are] questions about good and evil, about inequality and power,” she said. “They’re questions about belonging and identity and love and emotion—and that’s what the humanities does.”
McGowan advocates for the combined importance of the humanities and other fields like technology and business.
McGowan led a travel study program during the summers of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 in the Mustang region of Nepal. Here, she encountered a real-world situation where those in charge of making and using technology could have benefited from a more humanities-directed approach.
Solar cookers had been placed outside throughout the region in an attempt to create an easily accessible and environmentally-conscious alternative to wood stove cooking, McGowan said.
“They were excellent technology, amazing technology,” she said. “You could pack them up really small, you could backpack them in, they were light, they were easy to repair. They’re great.”
Yet, the solar cookers sat there completely unused by the locals of the region, McGowan said. She believes that asking questions about the culture of that region could have prevented that waste of materials and energy.
“So, because people hadn’t asked the question of ‘how do people cook,’ ‘what is the meaning of a cook stove,’ and ‘what do people gather around and how is it a center of community,’ the technology was useless,” McGowan said.
The proposed positive effect of the solar cookers had no actual effect due to the cultural values of that region. The food and cooking processes that were important to that culture rendered this technology useless.
“So, like, technology is great,” McGowan said. “But technology in the absence of thinking about people—it’s a terrible idea.”
Today, social media has become a battleground where people seemingly spend more time fighting than connecting. Ignacio López-Vicuña, associate professor of Spanish, said the humanities can help.
“I feel like it’s pretty noticeable to me that people are basically screaming at each other on social media, and are just not able to have a civil conversation,” López-Vicuña said.
Rather than pointlessly arguing, students of the humanities learn to understand different perspectives. Given the prevalence of online discourse today, these skills should be in high demand.
“Those basic skills of public debate and just sort of seeing things from the other person’s point of view [and] being able to have a balanced and nuanced view about things, I think those are things that come from the humanities,” he said.
The humanities is all about learning to analyze and think critically about everything you see, hear and read.
Even after acknowledging the skills that come with studying the humanities, there’s still the question of what students can actually do with their humanities degree.
McGowan gave the example of Eric Schwartz ‘83, who majored in history and now runs the College for Social Innovation in Boston, which connects college students to social justice-related internships and career opportunities.
The mission statement of the College for Social Innovation is “to educate and inspire the next generation of problem solvers,” according to their website.
This statement could apply to a variety of majors, but lately it seems universities and institutions across the country have been advocating for one field as the defining factor of the future: STEM.
“It’s like being given this message that everything should be STEM, STEM, STEM, you know, and even the university I think, unconsciously or unintentionally is kind of communicating that message to parents and students,” López-Vicuña said.
While science, technology, engineering and math fields are becoming more and more important, emphasizing research and advancement in fields like medicine, I fear the humanities may be getting left behind.
The funding of many universities is disproportionately going into STEM programs, according to the New Yorker article.
Despite UVM being a research-heavy institution, it seems the importance of the humanities is not lost on its students.
English is one of the most populated majors at UVM, according to the Department of English’s webpage.
“I think one of the things that I really loved about being at UVM is that sense that it is a place where we have an engineering school and we have a business school, but the ethos is very liberal arts,” McGowan said. “I’ve never had students be like, ‘why do I have to take a history class?’”
The appeal of a large university like UVM is that you can get the best of both worlds.
The roots of UVM are grounded in a liberal arts education, but the branches have grown to create a school where you can spend your mornings discussing books, like Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch,” and your evenings clutching a micropipette in a laboratory.
It is up to the University and its students to ensure the humanities remain important. The humanities should only stay relevant if they are inclusive to everyone.
From what I’ve seen in my time here, the University does strive to provide an inclusive education by engaging in initiatives such as requiring students to take one non-European history class.
As an English major myself, I’ve noticed debates about whether students really need to be reading Shakespeare or Hemingway anymore when there are so many more diverse and modern voices in literature today.
How I see it is this: the humanities does not need to start from scratch, it needs to keep evolving. Students can read the classics and discover new perspectives while also studying more diverse voices of literature, history and so on.
It is up to students to push themselves to take classes that will challenge them to look from a multitude of perspectives, and it is up to the University to keep these classes readily available.
So, although national enrollment may be declining, there is no doubt the humanities are worth saving and can be saved through our own efforts to value them here at UVM.