When students in Ursula Lindqvist’s first-year Swedish class introduced themselves by name and concentration to classroom guests last semester, she was shocked to hear what many of her students were studying.
“I was really surprised to hear student after student after student say ‘Economics,’” said Lindqvist, who will leave her position as Director of Undergraduate Studies for Scandinavian to teach at a small liberal arts college next fall. “I’ve been reading the journals that they’ve been writing...and it was really startling to realize that so many of them are leaning toward Econ. And there’s nothing wrong with Econ, but let’s face it—it’s the huge fall-back concentration, it’s the safe one.”
Lindqvist acknowledged that many students are genuinely interested in economics. But she also raised a concern expressed by students and faculty members alike: as uncertainty persists in the job market, undergraduates seem to feel pressure to choose “practical” fields of study that are thought to increase employment opportunities after college.
But future “success” may not correlate with present happiness. Senior exit surveys over the last three years have consistently shown that humanities concentrations have the highest satisfaction levels when compared to the natural sciences, social sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
As enrollment in the humanities has fallen, from 321 senior concentrators in 2010 to 284 in 2012, faculty and students are looking to counter what has proven to be a global shift away from the humanities.
A GLOBAL PARADIGM SHIFT
In late April of this year, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha declared a global “crisis” for the study of humanities. Speaking at “The Humanities and the Future of the University,” a panel convened to discuss the uncertain future of humanistic scholarship, Bhabha highlighted a telling statistic: the amount of money dedicated to humanities research totaled less than half of one percent of the amount dedicated to science and engineering research and development in 2011.
According to national data that chair of the English department W. James Simpson said will be compiled into a report on the humanities to be published this month, the number of bachelor degrees earned in the humanities has declined from 14 to eight percent between 1966 and 2010.
As society increases focus on science and technology, many arts and humanities affiliates frame these statistics within a broader paradigm shift.
Diana Sorensen, divisional dean of the arts and humanities at Harvard, acknowledged that the rise of science has promised societal improvements but added that abandoning the humanities could be dangerous.
“As fast as that pace [of scientific research] has been, we feel that it hasn’t taken stock of the depth of humanistic reflection that would really inform that pace,” she said. “If you’re just hurtling yourself toward the future, you’re more likely to repeat mistakes.”
WITHIN THE GATES
Harvard is not immune to the global trend, but professors are rethinking its causes.
“Up to about a year ago, there were three major reasons for declining concentrator numbers in the humanities. They were: admissions were geared toward scientists, that [the problem] is Harvard-specific, and that it’s to do with financial aid,” said Simpson. “We now know, a year on, that not one of those arguments withstands scrutiny.”
According to Simpson, students pick their concentrations based on intellectual curiosity and a desire to contribute positively to society—goals that students seem to think non-humanities concentrations will fulfill more effectively.
FAS Dean To Take LeaveDiana Sorensen, the divisional dean for the arts and humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will leave Harvard at the end of the academic year to take a year-long sabbatical.
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Upcoming Report to Address Challenges Facing the HumanitiesIn order to address concerns of declining student enrollment in the humanities, the Harvard Arts and Humanities Division is preparing to release an in-depth report analyzing trends in the humanities and recommending ways to rekindle undergraduate interest in the liberal arts.
Faculty Reports Call for Solutions to Predicaments Facing Humanities ScholarshipA set of three reports released Thursday by a faculty committee call for a vigorous response to the decline of humanistic study at Harvard, including the establishment of new curricular offerings, an internship program, a new undergraduate humanities center similar to the Harvard Innovation Lab, and a new humanities-minded organization roughly modelled after the Institute of Politics.