by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The latest ediiton of TIME magazine’s “The Awesome Column” features Joel Stein‘s somewhat serious defense of college humanities majors. Despite his support for liberal arts, Stein can’t help poking fun at his academic brethren.
Since I graduated in 1993, it has become uncool to major in the humanities. In 2010, 7% of U.S. graduates majored in one of the liberal arts, compared with 14% in 1966, which, percentage-wise, is some number I don’t understand, since I majored in English. A third fewer Harvard freshmen are interested in the humanities than the freshmen 10 years ago, and while nearly half the faculty at Stanford teach humanities, fewer than 20% of applicants are interested in taking their classes. Instead, students are choosing computer science or other STEM disciplines–science, technology, engineering and math. Oddly, the liberal arts, which place more stress on the clever use of words, have not come up with a snazzy acronym of their own, like WHAPPEAR (women’s and gender studies, history, art, psychology, philosophy, East Asian studies, African studies and religious studies). The liberal arts are a lot touchier than the sciences about needing to feel included.
I don’t regret my English major or my master’s in English, which proved invaluable when I bragged about it in this sentence. And I think colleges should have more humanities majors. But I’m not trying to lure kids into liberal-arts majors by telling them that history and literature instill empathy or teach communication skills necessary for leading a business. Because I didn’t choose not to major in physics. Physics chose not to have me major in it, by making absolutely no sense at all.
The problem isn’t that kids avoid the liberal arts; it’s that superselective colleges are not picking the kinds of kids who will be liberal-arts majors. Instead, they’re overselecting high school science geeks simply because they’re smarter and will advance technology, cure diseases and make millions that they can then donate to the university.