Are Humanities Degrees A Dying Breed?

A J Gordon Chapel Gordon College

A. J. Gordon Chapel, Gordon College. Photo: John Phelan [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia

Gordon College announced recently that it was eliminating chemistry, French, physics, middle school and secondary education, recreation, sport and wellness, Spanish, and social work as separate majors, and combining philosophy, history and political science into a single department. This will mean the cutting of 36 faculty and staff positions.

Several small liberal arts colleges have faced closure, and one senses that the move on Gordon College’s part is to avoid a similar fate. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of bachelors degrees in the humanities dropped by nearly ten percent.  By contrast, degrees granted in engineering, science and health and medical sciences have increased.

Much of this is attributed to a rise in the number of jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related disciplines. Not only do majors in these fields preclude major in the humanities for all but the most motivated students, but the course loads in these majors are driving the reduction of what we called General Education courses, those that provided the necessary number of student hours in these humanities courses.

In my work in collegiate ministry with graduate students and faculty, most of those I know in the humanities are working as adjunct or contingent faculty, as tenured faculty positions dry up. They are lured to grad school by a love for literature, or history, or philosophy, and the chance to dig more deeply into what they love on fellowships or tuition waivers and stipends for teaching introductory courses with undergrads. They are actually low-cost labor. Then, as they wrap up four to six years of study with a dissertation, they go onto a saturated job market competing with several hundred others for every open tenure track position, often settling for those adjunct or contingent faculty positions. Many times they have to pay their own health benefits out of salaries that place them below the poverty line. Some find other ways to leverage their talents in industry, teaching high school, free-lancing or other jobs related, sometimes tangentially,  to their field. And some are baristas, or food truck vendors.

While it saddens me to see people who do not find jobs in the fields they love, most end up living satisfying and interesting lives. What saddens me more is the message many others are buying into in preparing for work in STEM fields. These are often sold as the training needed to fill the jobs that fuel the American economy. The message seems to imply that the purpose for which the emerging generation exists is to be fuel for our economic machine, or maybe a cog in the machine–until the machine replaces them! I find myself wondering how long people will settle for this before waking up to the fact that they know how to make and do, but have no idea why they are making and doing, what kind of world they are making and doing in, whether their making and doing is something good and worthy to give one’s only life, and how we arrive at this place in time and this kind of society.

A good liberal education helps people explore all these questions, and consider whether the answers of others address the questions of the day. I wonder sometimes whether the effort to eradicate what was once a staple of education is a recognition of the dangerous character of such an education. It fosters the asking of hard questions of oneself and one’s society. Questions people ask. Questions cogs do not ask.

I asked the question of how long it would take for people to wake up to what they’ve missed or lost. I suspect some never do, the amusements and distractions of life precluding such awakenings. Others get twenty years into a career only to discover that they have no clue why they are doing what they do other than that it pays well.

Writing a blog, and curating a Facebook page devoted to book, reading, and ideas, I interact with a diverse community of people for whom ideas and history, literature and art matter. They have discovered that making a life is far more important than making a living. They want to understand not only how to do things, but to make sense of their place in the world and this particular time in its history. Some have always understood this. Others fought to this realization later in life.

It makes me wonder whether at times humanities courses are wasted on the young. I wonder whether one answer to declining humanities enrollments is offer courses for those who later on in life realize what they have missed. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of things like The Great Courses.

Why do I value the humanities? I could come up with profound answers but the truth is, it comes down to some good teachers who opened up the fascinations of history, the profound questions raised in great works of literature and philosophy and the passages of Augustine and Calvin that made my soul soar. There were also those in the sciences whose larger perspective on life looked beyond how things work to explore why we can understand these things and why they seem so beautiful, why the world is a place of wonder.

I realize as I muse on these things that I have no clue what the answer is to the decline in humanities enrollments and the curtailment of humanities programs. The most that I know to do is to keep affirming the richness and goodness and beauty of the fruits of these disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, political thought, art, music, and more. I don’t know that I can be a good teacher, but I hope I can celebrate those in print who have been good teachers to me and say, “look at this.”