At Stanford University, nearly 45 percent of faculty members for undergraduates are in humanities departments — but fewer and fewer students are taking those classes. Fewer than 18 percent of undergraduate applicants have a primary interest in the humanities. Schools nationally are seeing more students pick pre-professional majors that they see as having a more direct route to a job after college. Only about 7 percent of undergraduates major in the humanities nationally. That’s about half as many as did in the 1970s. We discuss the values of a humanities education and what the downward trend means for schools and society.

Debra Satz, professor of philosophy at Stanford University and senior associate dean for the humanities and arts
Scott Saul, director of undergraduate studies in the English Department at UC Berkeley
Richard Brodhead, president, Duke University; co-chair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

  • Aidan

    I am happy to have majored in English. Most of what I love about the world I owe to the principles of paying attention that I derived from formally studying literature. Whenever I hear someone saying that studying in the humanities has little market value, I always think, you’re missing the point. Reading and thinking about reading, for instance, makes us more skeptical, more competent, more interested in the world and its people – sounds like the traits of an excellent CEO. Besides, technically every discipline is a humanity. William James writes, “You can give humanistic value to almost anything by reaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being.” Incoming college students might do well to remember that the department structure of universities is a modern construction. Why not strive to be a polymath?

  • geraldfnord

    Getting it out of the way quickly: this represents bad societal values, and isn’t even realistic given that tech. changes so quickly that a university education will be partly out-dated quickly, and one will have to fall back on individualised learning anyway. If the humanities teach rationality, decency, and creativity they will have endowed the learner with gifts of less ephemeral value—I’m sure that often they fail to do so, or to do so adequately, but then again I’m not that great a physicist, either.

    Which path?:
    I think it largely depends on what you feel will most require external instruction. I’ve learned a lot of literature, theology, philosophy, applications programming, and written language (including maths) on my own; I’m pretty sure I would have failed at physics and spoken languages without classes—but these are my strengths, and someone else might decide that they could pick up the sciences by themselves, and need the discussion of literature majoring in it would bring.

    If I have a bias, it’s toward the path I chose, because becoming a scientist has a lot to do with learning the craft, and seeing someone do it (e.g., seeing how a physicist analyses a problem, including [very significantly] whatever approximations and assumptions need to be made to get any kind of preliminary result, and where those fall down) helps…I also have to say that I know more scientists and computer geeks with keen literary, musical, and artistic accomplishments than authors, musicians, and artists who’ve made notable contributions to science and technology (Brian May doesn’t count, though Hedy Lamarr does).

  • Ryan

    Your panel seems to be overlooking the fact that schools are now inclined to market what students will on average receive in expected compensation after studying certain disciplines because the cost of education seems to inexorably rise at double or triple the rate of inflation. It is great to live in the ivory tower like the people on your panel, but someone needs to pay for it and that forces those people to focus on their own economics.

    • utera

      Bingo, its like they were avoiding the elephant in the room during the entire discussion, barely mentioning the hard numbers. It costs literally 200k+ for 4 years at Stanford. What kind of family do you need to come from in order to justify spending that kind of money on a humanities education. Only the elites can afford that kind of extravagance at this point. Everyone else has to ask the practical questions, can I ever pay off this debt, and will it provide for me for the rest of my life. If education were free in this country this question would be different, but as it is now…we’re talking stupefying amounts of money and debt with people trying to justify the nebulous benefits of a humanities education. Lets not pretend the best people in the world are found in humanities departments…its not magical, anyone who became successful after such a degree probably had the drive to succeed, regardless of their choice of major.

      • John

        Low income students pay no tuition at Stanford, I think.

        • utera

          Maybe a lucky few, but how many poor students are going to blow a 200k credit on something questionable? They have one swing at the ball…

  • Ben Rawner

    Could one of your guest speak to the idea that mostly white upper middle class students fill the humanities classes. How can anyone get a degree In something like Philosophy and then afford to pay back the debt when they will probably get a low paying service sector job at mcdonalds and those who can afford an English degree are only wealthy elites who have their parents money to fall back on. What kind of monetay background do your guests come from?

    • couchloc

      I don’t know why people continue to pick on the philosophy degree. This table from the WSJ reveals that philosophy majors do pretty well with their degrees actually (average midcareer salary is $81,200). And note these are numbers for BA students.


    • Adrian Rehn

      As a recent Political Science graduate of the University of California – Davis, I noticed that STEM courses were dominated by upper middle class children of 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants, usually from East Asia or South Asia. The Humanities are more popular among whites and African-Americans, also of upper-middle class origin. It’s hard to find students from working class families in the UC system anymore, it seems that an increasing percentage are relegated to the CSU system.

  • Bob

    Part of the decline in humanities enrollment has to be attributed to the rapidly increasing cost of a college education. If a student needs to take out six-digit student loans, they are going to have to choose a major that allows them to repay that debt. I think this is a shame, because despite being an engineering major, my fondest academic memory from college is a five-course humanities sequence that was part of my GE requirements. Do your guests have any thoughts on ways to decrease the cost of a college education and make the humanities a more viable option for students with limited financial means?

  • Bob Fry

    I’m an engineer and finished undergrad decades ago. However I did not detest the required humanities courses; I was hugely disappointed by them.

    In my freshman year I took Religion and Philosophy. The first one was taught by three “professors”. The Jewish one explained why he couldn’t buy anything German. The Christian one, a disciple of the Glide Memorial Church, showed us porn films to expand our minds. The last guy I don’t know what his religion was, if any, but he told us about his times in jail.

    The philosophy class prof was so disorganized and rambling that after one semester I had one page of notes.

    I did take a political science class that was rigorous.
    Later experiences weren’t much better.

    My point of reciting these experiences is that in my science and math classes, a professor as incompetent as some of the ones in the humanities simply wouldn’t last. I had some mediocre professors in science and math, but they still managed to convey the subject matter in a reasonable manner. Not so in the humanities.

    I remain envious to this day of the apparently excellent humanities classes my mother took as her “classical” education at Berkeley in the 1930s. I’ve had to fill in my immense gaps in a haphazard fashion over the years.

    Demand excellent teachers and you just might get more people in their classes, regardless of subject.

    • Sam Badger

      Someone whose taken critical thinking can point out that you are just a victim of conformation bias. There are many amazing professors in the humanities and many less skilled ones in the sciences. It probably depends more on which university you go to, which departments you are in, etc

      • Bob Fry

        Confirmation bias. Yes, I’m aware of it. No, those two freshman classes were simply dismal. Wish I had had some of those amazing professors; maybe they avoided the GE classes I had in Humanities.

    • Daina

      I add a counter experience. At UC Berkeley in the late 80’s as a Humanities major who took a year of Engineering Calculus just for the fun of it, the most disheartening experience and inept professorship was in a basic Statistics course. The Irish professor’s accent was so incomprehensible and his Chinese TA’s equally so that I stuck it out as the material seemed straight forward enough for me to figure it out on my own. I am bilingual since early childhood and was trilingual by the time I took the course. I can dicepher most accents and yet, could not understand a word either spoke.

      Only after the course Add/Drop period had passed did the material get so challenging that I was left with two educators who were not fulfilling on what they were hired to do and classmates who seemed to be equally boggled and frustrated. I don’t know what happened to those 2 educators. I trust that they didn’t last beyond that disastrous course with the skills they exhibited and lacked.

      A side note: That class ending up being the course that lowered my GPA resulting in my graduating Cum Laude vs. Magna Cum Laude.

    • Daina

      A Side Note: That Statistics course took my GPA down resulting in graduating Cum Laude as opposed to Magne Cum Laude. Unfortunate, as my course grade reflected the incompetence of the educators and neither my abilities nor my efforts.

  • William – SF

    I love this topic … and as a trained engineer I envy those that got a humanities education – I’ve missed out on too much literature/arts/music to appreciate it as much as it deserves.

    (Unlike Mr Fry, I took as an elective a Science, Religion and Arts class my Junior year that was more memorable and remarkable than most of my engineering classes.)

    However, if you’re a parent concerned about your child’s future, you’d have to work really hard at not wanting your child versed in high finance for a role on Wall Street – the only apparent safe economic haven in this society.

    Not even engineers, doctors, … pick a profession, get a get-out-of-economic-jail free card, just see the results of the last economic crisis.

    Oh woe is me…

  • Sam Badger

    As a philosophy graduate student at SFSU who teaches critical thinking, for me it is important to emphasize the fact that the humanities are useful not only for humanities majors, but for non-humanities majors (as well as those getting technical degrees in places like Community college). To have a rich culture with ethically aware citizens who vote responsibly, we need people who can think critically and who know about the real history of human thought. As soon as we try to reduce all value to market value, it becomes very hard to see these benefits. We need to understand that there is more of value in the world than larger paychecks.

    • Bob Fry

      I hear this a lot: that critical thinking can be taught in the humanities. I’m genuinely curious how this can happen. As an engineer, I learned critical thinking from math, physics, programming and engineering classes, where you know very soon if your reasoning process in a particular task is correct, or not. The sciences taught me to question myself and my results, and I don’t know how this would occur in the humanities. Can you explain further? Again, not being a wise-ass, would actually like to know more.

      • Another Mike

        Critical thinking requires an open mind. In Physical Sciences and Engineering, there is often only one right answer, while in the Humanities there can be a multiplicity of right answers.

      • Sam Badger

        IMO in engineering you get the “thinking” part but less of the “critical” part. The whole point of critical thinking is to ponder over questions where the answers aren’t so clear.

        Anyhow I do think you can get good critical thinking skills in the sciences but they tend to be less general. The humanities give a more generalized kind of critical thinking skill.

      • Julie

        Critical thinking is also examining one’s assumptions and biases and considering their roots, respecting other perspectives, comprehending alternate theories and realities, ultimately exploring all of these and being able to discern and articulate one’s understanding of them. It is not necessarily a quick determination of right/wrong, but the ability to reason through multiple realities. The humanities, as well as the social sciences, are rich with opportunities to learn in this way, as opposed to a objectivist, rational orientation to what is true and known.

      • David

        critical thinking is the bread and butter undergraduate course for philosophy departments throughout California and other States where critical thinking is a graduation requirement for all majors. why philosophy? because philosophy is home to logic, formal systems of reasoning, and arguably the foundation of arithmetic. of course, emphasis on logic is only one pedagogical approach to teaching critical thinking. there are others. at SFSU, for example, one may satisfy the requirements by taking Ethnic Studies 110 as well as Philosophy 110; both are courses on critical thinking. emphasis on logic is what some academics call weak sense critical thinking in contrast to strong sense critical thinking, which emphasizes a world view (i.e., understanding if not appreciation of the beliefs and experiences of others). the language used to describe these pedagogical approaches is inherently loaded, but it provides the answer to your question: emphasis on logic as well as a world view is the reason critical thinking is taught in the humanities, precisely for the reason that it is within the humanities that logic and a world view is taught.

  • David

    I think there is an interesting connection between the first part of the show about new guidelines for treating heart disease and the decline of the humanities at universities. The first part of the show highlighted the debate about guidelines based on highly, perhaps overly, quantitative data from the American Heart Association and the more qualitative perspective from an practicing internist. Likewise, the discussion about the humanities is often cast in the framework of the qualitative humanities versus the quantitive sciences, a vastly oversimplified dichotomy.

    My perspective is as PhD student in the Integrated Program for Quantitative Biology at UCSF who went to a small liberal arts college, where we were limited in the number of science classes so we could take humanities classes. What I gained from my humanities classes is an invaluable perspective that sharpened my ability to observe biology at a qualitative level. We often forget that science is not strictly quantitative. The first step of the scientific process is observation and description of a phenomenon, something the humanities does far better than the sciences. I think the first half of the show was an example of the devaluation of qualitative observation. The new guidelines from the American Heart Association depend on an easily quantifiable variable (cholesterol levels) to predict heart disease but does not capture the overall quality of life of individual patients, which is poorly quantified and the crux of the debate.

  • TLG

    BA in music and english, MA in literature, PhD in writing, MPP (public policy) from UC Berkeley … 18 years after all that doing very well managing $20 million in a socially responsible hedge fund … wouldn’t trade my education for anything, and can do right with money because of it.

  • Ben

    I studied humanities. Did poorly. Now I earn over 100K as a
    computer programmer. School gave me my interests in life, not my career. That
    won’t work for all engineers but if you want to be a programmer skip school and
    just start programming. A technical certification from a company like Microsoft
    or Oracle is worth just as much and costs a lot less. You can learn from reading anything you can learn in school.

    • disqus_63X8zNMKNl

      This is partly what is so sad about denigrating a rounded education and having as one’s proudest accomplishment a fat salary. What a world we live in where it’s not only polite to brag about how much much one makes but seen as admirable.

      • utera

        Its a practical issue. It costs over 200,000 dollars for 4 years at Stanford, the question of whether its worth it to study the humanities for $200k matters, if your final salary is 100k one can almost justify it, but as you can see, he sort of had to go another route.

  • Another Mike

    I would tell any hs student: Pick the field that you are motivated to study, because the people you will be competing with will be those who love the field and excel at it. You want to do what you excel at, rather than try to fit yourself into some pre-job major where you will be mediocre at best.

  • Todd

    I graduated with two full undergraduate degrees in the early 90’s. I have a BA in Sociology and a BS in Political Science. I often was asked by other students and my parents “what are you going to do with that?” I repeated replied that I was going to college for an education, not a career. I have been very successful because I learned critical thinking skills. – Todd

  • Another Mike

    But humanities departments should accommodate students’ fears about studying something that will make them unemployable. Set up a program: “Women’s Studies to Work,” or similar. Find out what alumni are doing and profile them. Lean on alumni to offer internships.

  • Jonathan Mooney

    I can speak from my own experience that I received a BA in Sociology because it was the subject that I was most interested in. After graduating I was pushed into the work world and found a job as a sales rep for a large fortune 500 company. As a number of years working, I decided to go back to school and got my MBA due to my need to be more specialized. I must say, I do use many of the skills that I got from my Sociology and apply them to my business life. Classes that I took in my undergrad such as: demographics, statistics, race relations, and social theory, were all applicable to my business life. The process of critically thinking and writing through some of these larger, more ambiguous social problems, help me market and draw conclusions on where I should target the product that I am working on. With that said, although incredibly important, I do think that if you are to get a degree in humanities, you will just need to be prepared to follow-up with continuing eduction to ensure that you are able to ‘fit’ into the current job market.

  • Ben

    The big problem is really the expectations that kids have getting out of school. They think the world is supposed to give them a job based on their degree. Whatever happened to working your way up?

    • Another Mike

      Kids can’t imagine career paths.

      • Adrian Rehn

        Yeah. As a recent grad I talked to alot of my friends about their career paths. Most people seemed to have had their career path planned out by their parents, overwhelmingly in the direction of STEM. Especially the recent immigrants.

  • Kabir Nigam

    Wouldn’t this whole problem be eliminated if we get rid of the idea of a specific major and let students take a more liberal approach in terms of their class choices?

    • Another Mike

      The danger is taking an incoherent set of courses. If someone is willing to guide the student, fine.

  • Ransackeld

    I teach underprivileged high school kids from low income families about leadership and advanced computer skills and even though I stress English and the arts to them (because I love those things) they are more interested in math and science. Do you think this decline in humanities will open up more opportunities for kids from underprivileged parts of society?

  • Enzo Baker

    I received my AB in English and French from the University of California, and I’m currently a
    masters student in mechanical engineering at the California State University. I don’t “regret” my undergraduate
    degree at all as the STEM community would have you believe, and my decision to pursue a technical graduate degree was based on my work experience as a technical writer and researcher after college. I think it’s a false dichotomy in the public perception that humanities majors can’t find a job or are not employable. I think majors in all fields need to be creative in how they sell their knowledge and usefulness in the workplace and there is certainly no replacement for picking oneself up by one’s own bootstraps and working hard. I don’t expect society to hand out jobs to either engineers, chemists, physicists or Foucault scholars just based on their degree.

    • utera

      Yea well the issue is that an employer can only use a humanities degree as a bar for judging basic work ethic to fill a job where no degree is actually necessary, only common sense and basic people skills perhaps. A stem or humanities degree can work equally as well for such a filter.
      You can’t hire a humanities major to fill an engineering position or any stem position, you either know the math and science and can apply it or you can’t. Its not to say all candidates with degrees are equal, of course not, you can’t judge creativity from just a degree, but a humanities major who doesn’t have deep technical/scientific/mathematical knowledge is utterly useless for most jobs. For instance you can hire a doctor to fill many “humanities” jobs, you can’t do the reverse.

      • Adrian Rehn

        Good point, although humanities majors are presumably much more suitable for a humanities position than an engineer.
        For example, my tentative career path is to be involved on the policy side of the health or environmental science sectors. I suppose policy analysis is on the border between humanities and more quantitative fields. Even with limited technical skill, humanities majors can find their niche in a highly technical field (again, health/science policy and IP law come to mind)

  • disqus_63X8zNMKNl

    If all students major in something that will be “lucrative”, may I ask who is going to train to be teachers and writers and historians and professional musicians and artists? One of my daughters is a Senior Editor at a newspaper in Santa Barbara, my other daughter is a high school teacher in the same city. They both have careers they love, and are very successful; they work long hours, with no such thing as weekends with no work. They are paid very little, as is pretty much everyone in the humanities, and this makes life difficult in many ways. But if these intelligent, hard-working people don’t do these jobs, are we to have a society with businessmen/women only? How is it that making lots of money is the only sign of success?

    • Adrian Rehn

      I agree. It’s concerning to see the Bay Area overrun with techies and their investors and marketers. I live in Oakland, which has been looked over economically for decades due to institutional racism and poor administration, and I feel like the tech bug could hit the East Bay at any moment. This would effectively price out any middle-class person who wants to live in the core of the Bay Area, myself included. Money money money

  • Bob Fry

    One last comment after listening for 53 minutes: All comments so far seem to imply that studying a STEM major is for getting a job. Not so! I enjoyed immensely my math, physics, and engineering classes for their own sake, and going through an advanced degree in engineering changed my ability to think better.

    Whatever you study, choose something you will enjoy. I and others were fortunate that what we liked paid OK later; I realized many years ago that I was privileged in that regard.

  • Ransackeld

    Do you think this decline in humanities will open up more opportunities for kids from underprivileged parts of society?

  • Topsy

    Wait a minute! My daughter decided to get an RN, already having a BS in botany AND is a licensed accupuncturist. She took on over $100,000 in debt because she decided to take a 2 years in one course at Merritt college, a good but for profit institution, which happily took her money without telling her that new nurses were going to have a very difficult time, getting a high paying job which her plan included. Well bad planning! She has been struggling ever since and is currently working as a school. Nurse, loving her job, and earning very little. She is drowning in debt.

    • Another Mike


      Merritt is a public community college, part of the Peralta district. They offer an Associates Degree in Nursing, which is sufficient to let the graduate take the RN Qualifying Exams. Nursing tuition is the same as for any other coursework. The cost of study is estimated at $5000 for the first year, and $2000 for the second year, so I don’t see how that adds up to $100,000

      One important issue is that the standard educational credential is the BSN. Your daughter has a BS in Botany, but do her two degrees add up to a BSN? If not, she should transfer to CSUEB to complete one. Then more career doors will open for her.

  • Eric Hartwig

    Great Show.

    When I was a junior in high school I stumbled across my father’s college transcript. He graduated from Harvard in 1924 with a degree in English, yet I knew him as a practicing physician and surgeon. I asked him how in the world he could get into medical school with a degree in English. He had a few courses in chemistry and biology, but many more in Latin, Enghlish, and Greek.

    His answer was simple: by studying the humanities he developed many skills and interests that could be brought to bear in the study of medicine. If he could survive a course taught by George Lyman Kittridge, he could survive anything medical school could throw at him. Once he committed himself to the prolonged study of a technical field he would have little chance to explore different approaches to the human condition.

    Apparently Harvard Medical School felt the same way and admitted him. His younger brother studied botany and too was admitted to Harvard Medical School.

  • HiloHattie

    We’ve seen this coming for 50 years! Prop 13 in CA reduced funding to schools. The arts were triaged. Rising immigration and population growth created greater demand for everything and diversified previous educational values. The growth of materialism caused a desire for things over inner riches. Higher education costs pushed out the middle class and the intellectually average. Universities reduced their foreign language and arts entrance prerequisites. When schools did have funding, they built new wings or added courses to the STEM departments (or, Sports!). Pre-college education followed suit. Parents and society decided there is little marketable value of HUM courses. What has often resulted are young adults with high purchasing power but a low cultural perspective and a souless interior life. How tragic!

  • John Baker

    If you love to seriously pursue an area in the humanities why do you need to go to college in order to undertake this? You don’t. These areas exist in printed materials easily available and assessed. Living individuals well versed in these areas are available via email, letters, public lectures, and so forth. You can’t easily study medicine on your own…where will you get the bodies? You can’t easily study micro-biology on your own…you need all that expensive equipment. But to study in the humanities all you need is a book, a quiet room, and some light.

  • Larissa Capelo Keiser

    As a student who graduated in 2008, I feel as though I would steer clear of the humanities were I to invest another four years in my education. I belive that most “recession grads” would agree that preprofessional coursework may have served us better. I attended UCSB and studied international relations. My coursework allowed me to study an eclectic mix of history, art history, economics and politics. My passion for those things allow me to learn a about these subjects without attending formal classes. Today I work in high tech and have found a niche I enjoy, but would love to have dedicated those four years to strict preprofessional work.
    I believe that close to 70% of my graduating class was unable to find work after graduation. Had we been better equipped with scientific/ preprofessional degrees we may have struggled less in a rough economy.

  • The caller in his 40s regretting his decision to have majored in film from a university in Northern California is a bitter party of one. With a humanities degree, you can, as Dr. Satz notes, fold the degree into something that perhaps is not initially obvious, but can turn out to be something or worthwhile (and perhaps even lucrative), and just as needed and wanted as any engineer or nurse. For many, engineers are notorious for not being able to communicate simply and effectively. As a sidebar, I also don’t see how all those students currently enrolled for engineering degrees will find jobs in their field after they graduate. In the end, it is wise to remember that good writers and critical thinkers will always find careers and jobs in any number of fields that are not initially obvious.

  • fritz24

    I think it’s a shame that the speakers here are from Stanford, Duke, and Berkeley: what about more standard state schools? Community colleges? The conversation looks a lot different among those constituents and they should be a part of the conversation.

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