At a recent workshop on building the research university of the 21st century, there was a wonderful discussion of the need for the insights and way-of-thinking common to the humanities for many of the key global challenges. The speaker noted that although the laboratories and equipment of scientists seem foreign to the intense cognition and reflection of the humanist, the work of the two groups of scholars is united by a common quest for meaning. Both sets of scholars attempt to glean understanding where there are ambiguity and clarity and where there is chaos. It was a welcomed and spirited argument supporting the role of the arts and humanities in the modern university.
That talk, several new books, and reports of scholarly groups are part of an increasing appreciation of the humanities. The evidence is accumulating that the humanities are uniquely valuable in generating the creative minds that lead unusually successful lives in modern society. Yet there does seem to be a mismatch in enrollment patterns at US universities and that argument.
I wandered into an interesting study that asked the question, “Do US students’ choices of undergraduate major follow the business cycle?” The study examined the experiences of college graduates from 1960 to 2011, a period that experienced several recessions. The findings are separated by the gender of the student.
In the face of periods of higher unemployment, undergraduate women tend to choose majors that are generally associated with male-dominated careers. For example, they move into business, finance, accounting, and computer-related fields. They also tend to choose nursing, a major with direct job targets. The majors that are disadvantaged during such periods of high unemployment are literature, languages, sociology, history, and education. Among males the story is similar, with periods of higher unemployment yielding more majors in engineering, accounting business, natural sciences, and relatively fewer majors in history, literature, languages, sociology, and political science.
In a 1780 letter to his spouse, John Adams wrote, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce, and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine [sic].” It appears that times of economic hardship, as well as times of political strife, generate a refocusing to individual economic welfare.
What does this mean for the arts and humanities? I don’t pretend to know. However, one hopeful interpretation would be that the negative effects of the great recession of 2008-2009 on the selection of majors might be dissipating over the coming months and years, as the US economy recovers from the shock. If past history is replicated, if the macroeconomic performance dampens concerns over one’s short-run economic welfare, the percentages of undergraduates majoring in the arts and humanities should increase in future cohorts. This benefit might also be enhanced with increasing public discourse about the value of liberal education to drive innovation through creativity.
Georgetown possesses deep strength in the arts and humanities. Its devotion to liberal education, including the humanities, has contributed young minds who have become leaders in an innovation society. I’m hopeful that a growing economy will lead to wider societal support for the humanities; in the meantime, vigilance to preserve this strength for future generations of Hoyas is important.