According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2021 was the ninth consecutive year that the number of students graduating with a major in the humanities has declined. According to federal data, the number of English majors fell by a third from 2011 to 2021, and students majoring in religion, area studies and history fell even more.
Academic fields such as anthropology, sociology and philosophy are also shrinking. But nursing, criminology and public administration continue to grow. The number of computer science and engineering majors has exploded.
Dozens of private colleges have closed completely over the past 10 years, in part due to declining demand for a traditional liberal arts education. In others, departments have been reduced, merged or even closed.
We live in an increasingly STEM-dominated, technology-centric and job-driven world.
I was reminded of this when I recently read an article that mentioned the rise of “supply chain management” courses in small liberal arts schools. I admit that I found it disturbing.
I didn’t even know there was such a field of study. But it seems to be an increasingly popular offer intended to ensure that students come out of school capable of finding work in the logistics sector. They learn to get the products from where they are produced to the consumers who need them through a complex of factories, warehouses, transport vehicles, etc.
Offering courses in supply chain management is part of the trend in academia to promise undergraduate students a “return on investment”.
And that makes some sense. When private colleges cost up to $60,000 a year, it’s no surprise that students (and their parents) see it as an investment that they should expect to recoup something tangible and valuable. A 2021 study showed that two-thirds of students believe higher education is not worth what they pay.
Students often come out of school burdened with debt and anxious about their financial future, and they’ve all heard stories of Uber drivers who know Greek and Latin and baristas with doctorates in sociology. Of course, they want to be employable.
If we all study engineering, nursing, computer science and supply chain management and let the humanities and social sciences disappear, something terribly important will be lost, both for students and for society.
Particularly in an era of demagogic populism and closed partisanship, where civic discourse is bloated and dulled.
The best opinion content of the week and the opportunity to participate in a weekly question on a subject that affects our region.
The liberal arts are important because how we think matters as much as how we acquire professional skills.
In my view, we need to build a productive and prepared American workforce and hone its skills for the 21st century. But we must also remember that the humanities and social sciences – history, literature, philosophy, sociology, political science and the rest – are essential to educated and thoughtful citizenship.
A liberal arts education develops the imagination, arouses curiosity, and encourages open-mindedness. Through writing, argumentation and cultural studies, he encourages critical thinking. It emphasizes nuance and complexity. It rewards intellectual honesty.
At best, the humanities and social sciences help students (and the adults they become) to maneuver through the complications and contradictions of the world. Learning languages, studying other countries, remembering history – they broaden perspectives and help us transcend global differences.
It shouldn’t be a choice. Engineers and nurses can be educated in their fields and also educated in the liberal arts, just as English majors can come out of school with skills to help them find jobs. Studies show that many employers are looking for exactly the kind of writing and reasoning skills that humanities and social sciences majors possess.
Don’t let your alma mater wipe out the philosophy department. If you want to major in public administration or supply chain management, choose a school that requires you to read some history as well. In an age of rampant polarization and partisanship, we will all be better off if the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences stay with us for a long time.
Nicholas Goldberg is associate editor and Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.