College Guide


June 21, 2013 2:28 PM We Don’t Have Enough Liberal Arts Majors

By Daniel Luzer


Education critics often complain that too many people are going to college and majoring in impractical things. As Florida Governor Rick Scott put it, back in 2011, maybe the state should stop funding the liberal arts and social sciences because “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

In fact, however, it appears American college students are increasingly choosing vocational-type majors, and leaving the humanities behind. According to David Brooks’s latest piece in the New York Times

A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.

That’s right, seven percent.

Maybe that’s a problem. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether or not this is a problem for employment, of course—while organizations often complain that recent college graduates lack critical thinking skills, it’s hard to tie that directly to the decline in humanities studies—but it might very well become troublesome for American society in general.

As Brooks writes:

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”
The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

And if America lacks that, well, what is all this education even for, anyway?

If we don’t have perspective on our civilization, and an individual’s place within it, a focus on STEM majors, and creating policy “so when they get out of school, they can get a job” starts to look pretty empty. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Walker on June 21, 2013 9:36 PM:

    Here is a related issue that perspective college students might want to be aware of. At the top schools, the potential major that you put on the common app actually matters. Why? Because a university can function if all of its students want to have the same major X. Majors need to be distributed (somewhat) among the students.

    The end result is that students wanting to major in the life sciences have an order of magnitude less chance of being accepted. Hope you wrote several published research papers while in high school.

    However, the bar is lower for a humanities major such as a language or philosophy. Now, the admissions committee has to believe you have a passion for that discipline (and this comes out from the essay and extra curriculars). But if you make a solid case that you want to major in an under represented area, your chances of getting in are significantly higher.

  • Demosthenes on June 22, 2013 8:36 AM:

    Many employers want liberal arts majors. I know some consulting firms prefer them, since liberal arts majors learn not only the basics ("reading, writing and arithmetic"), but also hone critical thinking skills.

    Another point I'd like to make is one major university is trying to encourage liberal arts majors. Tulane has a superb pre-med program that requires liberal arts degrees. Students must take certain prerequisite classes (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Calculus, and Organic Chemistry) during their first two years of college. If the student gets a 3.6 GPA and passes an interview, they are offered a place in Tulane's medical school -- without taking the hated MCAT -- if the students major in a liberal arts area in their last two years of college. It's a really clever way to encourage future doctors to be well-rounded (and less likely to be complete nerds with no interests). Maybe this is something other schools can consider adopting?

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on June 25, 2013 8:06 AM:

    There is no problem of people abandoning humanities for STEM majors. STEM isn't all that popular, either, as evidenced by the constant wailing of industry for more STEM majors. (The reason STEM isn't more popular is that industry doesn't pay all that well, but that's a topic for another post.)

    There is a problem: people abandoning humanities for vocational non-STEM majors: business, communications, teaching, you name it. These majors are devoid of any intellectual rigor or depth. STEM and humanities grads learn useful things and skills; vocational non-STEM grads merely pick up a credential. (Okay, nursing is useful, but that's about my only exception.) This abandonment is easy to understand. Students are desperate for a job, and mostly prefer parties to study.

    Furthermore, the humanities has mostly lost its reputation for rigor and depth. This is undeserved in part, but partly brought on by the conduct of humanities faculty: easy grading, and obscure specializations aping the natural sciences.

    To change the topic a bit, I can confirm that Walker is right. Back in my days (the late Pleistocene), a willingness to adopt a STEM major was what got kids into the fancy schools. It looks like things have changed a bit since then.