Decline of the Humanities: Where Does It STEM From?

By Ben Goldstein

A frustrated scientist clenching a pencil and paintbrush in his hand.

Humanities and social science fields without a clear pre-professional connection—disciplines classifiable as “qualitative academia”—have been falling out of favor worldwide. Between 2015 and 2018, the share of bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees awarded in humanities fields fell 5%, 11%, and 9% respectively on average throughout the OECD, with drops of varying proportions detected in 24 of the 36 OECD countries.[i] In the US, the proportion of undergraduate students studying the humanities tumbled approximately 30% between 2005 and 2020, while the United Kingdom government recently announced in 2021 its intention to reduce funding for arts, social sciences, and humanities degrees it now deems “low value.”[ii] In South Africa, the Academy of Science reported that the number of graduates in the humanities declined year-on-year between 1996 and 2008, even as degrees awarded in management grew 11% and degrees in science grew 5%.[iii] [iv] This would suggest an international transition towards a science, technology, and engineering-centric economy, where the quantity of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (a.k.a. “STEM”) has begun to outgrow the jobs outside of these fields.

Surprisingly, this is not the case. STEM accounted for a mere 7% of 2014 EU employment and 6% of 2016 US employment, respectively, with the technology sector accounting for only 10% of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the market value of American technology firms trailing the nation’s more general consumer discretionary sector throughout the 2010s.[v] [vi] In the EU, as of 2017, the digital economy accounted for a mere 7% of GDP.[vii] [viii] [ix] One might assume that, despite these relatively low numbers, there remains a shortage of high-skill STEM workers in developed economies. This is also not the case. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, only 28% of American STEM majors enter STEM fields upon graduation, peaking at 51% for computer science, mathematics, and statistics.[x] There does not appear to be a clear pattern associated with the industries that these individuals work in instead. Millions of students study STEM, inspired by grand expectations of high earnings and career growth, yet many ultimately find work in their area of study elusive. Even while employers outside of STEM are also compensating STEM graduates more handsomely, there does not appear to be a shortage of STEM-trained workers.[xi] Hence, it does not appear that the so-called “STEM craze” is driven solely by economic need, as common rhetoric suggests. Instead, two major, but often overlooked, factors may be contributing to the apparent decline of qualitative academia: unpopular changes in curricula in western democracies, and poor relations between “new authoritarians” and humanistic scholarship in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

According to the 2018 paper “The Relationship between College Major Prestige/Status and Post-baccalaureate Outcomes,” an analysis of why certain majors carry greater prestige among students than others, a well-defined “prestige hierarchy” exists between university majors in the US. Engineering and natural science fields are ranked at the pinnacle, followed by business, management, social sciences, education, humanities, and arts. Ultimately, it did appear that field prestige was correlated with earnings, but this correlation was relatively weak. The authors write, “As the adjusted r2 figure shows, a model listing all three [income-linked] outcomes explains less than 35 percent of the [prestige] variation that occurs around these means.” As such, field prestige is largely determined by factors less intuitive than expected earnings or the “hotness” that earnings and growth confers upon a field perceived to be at the forefront of innovation and progress—but what may these be?[xii]

One potential factor, at least in the US and Europe, is curricular. In his essay “Harvard and the Humanities,” George Washington University professor Samuel Goldman presents some alarming statistics: not only has the proportion of humanities majors at Harvard fallen precipitously over the past few decades, but more than half of incoming Harvard humanities majors ultimately transition to other fields before graduation. He attributes this to the common perception that humanities coursework is over-specialized, lacks obvious vocational practicality, is out of touch with students’ needs and interests, and has purported benefits that toe the fine line between intangible and irrelevant. He criticizes Harvard University’s 2014 draft of a long-term plan for the humanities, Mapping the Future: “It announces instead that the ideal graduate with a humanities degree would be an ‘internationally competent mediator of cultural history’. What on earth does this mean? . . . no wonder students prefer economics.”[xiii] A 2019 American Academy of Arts & Sciences Study found that 40% of humanities and social sciences graduates would change their major if they were to attend university again, compared to approximately 30% of engineering, natural sciences, and medical sciences majors.[xiv] Students have, right or wrong, imbibed the perception of the humanities’ impracticality. They are voting with their feet.[xv]

Though not a principal reason for its decline, the increasing ideological homogeneity of qualitative academia may -- in the opinions of moderate or conservative students and employers -- dilute its intellectual purity with activist fervor. A study of over twenty European countries concluded that the occupation of university professor is among the most uniformly left-wing across the continent and an excellent predictor of political ideology. Within the US, the proportion of conservative professors in most humanities and non-economics social sciences is estimated to be under 10%, the lowest percentages at selective, private colleges (at Williams College in Massachusetts, a mere 1 in 132 professors identifies as Republican; the ratio at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is a comparable 1 in 120). [xvi] [xvii] Indeed, elite professors are far more left-wing than the students they teach, as nearly 30% of incoming students at Harvard and 27% of incoming Yalies identify as “moderate”, “conservative”, or “very conservative”.[xviii] [xix] Describing his academic experience on campus, a conservative Harvard student told The Harvard Crimson, “The idea is not, anymore, ‘You are wrong,’ but instead, ‘You are not actually worthy of talking.’”[xx] In fact, a recent University of North Carolina questionnaire suggested significant self-censorship among conservatives and moderates, with 68% of conservative and 49% of moderate students claiming to stifle their speech due to fear of consequences.[xxi] Even if a student considers becoming an “internationally competent mediator of cultural history” to be a laudable educational objective, this goal of “mediator” may be more difficult to achieve when coursework is delivered by a professoriate that is almost entirely politically left-of-center. A 2017 survey of over 900 professors found that two thirds of conservative professors avoided sharing viewpoints in class out of fear of repercussions, compared to a mere third of liberal professors.[xxii] Critics point to attitudes such as those in Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth’s commentary on free speech: “When we make a subject part of a debate, we legitimize it in ways that may harm individuals and the educational enterprise. We must beware of the rubric of protecting speech being used as a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.”[xxiii] Critics of modern humanities curricula will often argue that to reduce certain forms of free expression—the historical lifeblood of academic freedom and the spirit of inquiry and societal change—to a “fig leaf for intimidating those with less power,” it should be unsurprising when students and employers begin to question. Of course, few students would advocate for an environment that embraces hate speech and endangers their classmates, and perhaps this is at the core of Roth’s claims—there is something to be said about bad faith actors who launch blanket objections at all race-related discussions. Nevertheless, the potential to wield ideological power—or the mere perception that ideological power is being wielded—as a means of stifling discourse is troubling.

Furthermore, a common perception lingers that non-quantitative fields are somehow lacking in academic rigor. The 2004 Duke University paper “Ability Sorting and the Returns to College Major,” an inquiry into whether more lucrative college majors are associated with students of greater academic ability, attempts to clarify this point. The authors declare that “poor performance is correlated with dropping out or switching to a less lucrative major,” as results suggest that those who enroll in natural sciences programs and switched into other fields tended to have below average GPAs and SAT scores relative to those who remained, whereas for other majors, those who switched into natural sciences tended to have higher SAT scores than those who remained, and a comparable GPA.[xxiv] This is corroborated by a 2021 University of Amsterdam university graduate outcome comparison, which found that “[g]raduates from the highest-paying field (‘engineering, manufacturing, and construction’) score high on numeracy but only slightly above average on literacy. Graduates from ‘Science, mathematics, and computing,’ the second highest-paying field, score highest in both domains. Humanities graduates score low on numeracy... [this] shows a clear, albeit not perfect, field-level relationship between average hourly wages and average cognitive skills.”[xxv] At the same time, a Middlebury College survey demonstrates that a mere 3% of students surveyed considered sociology to be “hard” while over 80% believed the same to be true for chemistry and physics, and that these attitudes were reflected by natural sciences professors and athletic coaches as well.[xxvi] It might be worth mentioning that chemistry and physics are far from the most lucrative STEM fields, which are not necessarily more vocationally practical than purportedly “easier” business or economics.

Throughout the US and Europe, the humanities might benefit from looking inward when considering declining enrollments and status in public conscience. But such introspection will not be complete without considering factors related to ideology and curriculum. On the other hand, amid recent discussion about the onslaught of authoritarian demagoguery within the US and Europe, it is natural to wonder how these trends would be managed by an illiberal regime. Some hints, perhaps, lie in Singapore, Hungary, and Brazil.

After decades of Hungarian democratic tradition, Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights came out with a startling conclusion: Hungary, under the (initially) democratically-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban, no longer holds democratic elections. The ruling Fidesz party propping up its “sham oppositions” may be one of the most dramatic episodes of democratic backsliding in the twenty-first century.[xxvii] In keeping with twentieth century fascist traditions, among Orban’s initial moves was a cracking down on a thriving liberal arts university scene. His authoritarian government withdrew research funding, weaponized the law to attack academic “dissidents,” and even attempted to force Central European University—Hungary’s most prestigious institution of higher education—out of the country, likely to quell undesirable ideological influence. Orban recognizes the power of humanistic education and scholarship, and his fear is well-founded. A 2012 Georgetown University report demonstrated a connection between liberal arts education and “taming” of authoritarian attitudes, with “liberal arts” students more likely to oppose authoritarianism than their STEM-focused counterparts globally.[xxviii] Ironically, in attempting to suppress these fields of study, Orban is showcasing better knowledge of qualitative academia’s value and power than many education administrators in the US and United Kingdom, who continue to deprive these departments of funding and downplay their importance. He recognizes these areas as potential safeguards of the liberal democracy that millions of Americans and Western Europeans have grown accustomed to. As an academic and protester in Budapest put it, “[For the government] it is really a problem, because thoughts are expressed here which criticize the government.”[xxix]

In Singapore, a wealthy bastion of illiberal capitalism, an unsuccessful American attempt to export the liberal arts college underscores the chilling grip of authoritarianism on academia. In 2011, Yale University and the National University of Singapore established a liberal arts college, Yale-NUS, in Singapore. The college was the first of its kind in Asia, and the first institution outside of the US to bear the name of an Ivy League university. However, signs of trouble emerged in 2019, when the Yale-affiliated school cancelled the course “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore,'' prompting accusations that the college was censoring coursework in keeping with Singaporean restrictions against protest and civil society. While the Yale Faculty Advisory Committee investigation on the matter suggested no violation of “academic freedom or open inquiry” and chalked the cancellation up to an administrative error, Yale-NUS president Tai Tan Yong himself admitted that the course would “infringe [Yale-NUS’s] commitment not to advance partisan political interests [on their] campus.” In a nation where over 60% of academics acknowledge government-related censorship in scholarship, this is unsurprising. Amid further tension between the two campuses, Tai Tan Yong made the unilateral decision, over Yale’s protest, to remove Yale from the Yale-NUS partnership and merge the college with the NUS University Scholars program. As one student wrote, “I’m concerned that whatever already-limited democracy, free speech, and political possibilities Yale-NUS currently offers may fall under greater state purview.”[xxx] [xxxi] Unlike NUS’s own STEM-focused major selection, Yale-NUS boasts many with the likes of “arts and humanities” and “global affairs.”[xxxii] In fact, 61% of Yale-NUS students are enrolled in the “Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,” as are only approximately 20% of NUS students.[xxxiii] [xxxiv] Where authorities shutter humanities departments, they shutter dissent as well.

Another episode of authoritarianism-liberal arts incompatibility is playing out in Brazil under the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. The Bolsonaro administration has stated an opposition to the teaching of gender studies and an intention to eliminate funding for philosophy and sociology departments in Brazilian Universities. Bolsonaro had previously claimed that education in Brazil was subject to “left-wing domination” by feminists and “cultural Marxists,” and initiated a campaign to encourage students to film university professors engaging in “ideological indoctrination.” Finally in 2019, his administration cut university budgets by 30%, forcing schools to decide between air conditioning and their departments.[xxxv] [xxxvi] Clearly, Bolsonaro is concerned, with qualms eerily similar to those of the American right-wing and its crusades against LGBT+ education and Critical Race Theory. A master’s student who experienced her undergraduate years under Bolsonaro’s predecessor had a stark message for the president: “I see young people . . . who want to grow but who will be prevented from doing so by these cuts—or they will have to leave the country.”[xxxvii]

Globally, whether the reason relates to authoritarianism, perception, or curriculum, the shift away from humanities and social sciences degrees far outpaces the shift towards a STEM-centric economy. Even those who study STEM, more often than not, find work outside of STEM fields. Perhaps the pull towards STEM could be best characterized as a push away from qualitative academia, fueled by country-specific factors that appear to be pushing education in the same direction on both sides of the democratic-authoritarian divide. This could be a dire sentence for qualitative academia. We may grapple with intergenerational fields of study-related inertia, a STEM-centric arms race between the Chinese and American spheres of influence, and a self-fulfilling prophecy of an economy that transitions more quickly towards STEM, as reality catches up with perception. This might promote public policy decisions that promote STEM education even more intensely, spelling danger for more qualitative academic fields. Nevertheless, this future is not inevitable. If curricular reforms and renewed recognition of qualitative academia’s necessity to the maintenance of free, democratic, and vibrant societies emerge, the humanities and social sciences might very well be on track for a new “golden age.”

The key variable at this inflection point is the decisions of the youth: will the current generation exhibit push-back and a preference for the liberal arts education model, or will it introduce a radically different attitude towards education that renders STEM, once and for all, supreme? In some contexts, it appears as if the students have spoken. Widespread pro-education youth protests have swept Brazil, while Hungarian university students continue to take to the streets in the interest of academic freedom.[xxxviii] Meanwhile, Yale-NUS students have penned their frustrations, though Singapore’s authoritarian grip and illiberal political landscape has rendered a demonstration infeasible.xxxix] Although students across the undemocratic world have made their grievances clear, American and European students continue to flock from qualitative academia, with few signs of mitigation. Faced with the dwindling of these disciplines, as Brazillians and Hungarians are, would they recognize the value of the knowledge and traditions at stake? Perhaps it would take an authoritarian resurgence to find out.

Illustration by Esther Wang

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