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In the past year, Introduction to Computer Science, also known as CS50, claimed the crown of Harvard’s most popular class, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences received the largest gift in school history, and the School of Public Health was renamed after its own record-setting donation. But fields that more clearly lead to individual professions grow at the University, some argue that the humanities are dying.
The numbers lend some credence to this claim. As a recent Crimson scrutiny pointed out, just 14 percent of Harvard’s Class of 2014 concentrated in the humanities, an 8 percent drop from a decade ago. Nationwide, the decline has been even sharper: The total number of undergraduate degrees awarded in the humanities has halved since the late 1960s.
The trend largely stems from the misperception, both on this campus and on others across the country, that the skills learned in the humanities are not professionally marketable. But in reality, humanities concentrators simply accumulate a different skillset. Whereas computer science concentrators learn to code, English concentrators learn to read analytically and write. One hands in a problem; the other, an essay. That difference reflects nothing more than different modes of learning. Furthermore, even in the more technical professional fields, many report back that the most important skills are those learned on the job.
It is true that jobs may be more difficult to find for those who concentrate in the humanities. One study showed that the unemployment rate for engineers rests about five percent lower than for those who studied the humanities in college. But this line of thought misses the point—college should be a time when students seize the opportunity to study what they are most passionate about. This is especially true here at Harvard, where students have the privilege of studying whatever they want and still have abundant job prospects upon graduation by virtue of the University’s prestige, regardless of their intended field. Further, in following their passions, students will inevitably gain skills and experiences that will serve them well in the future, regardless of occupation or discipline. As the Crimson scrutiny described, “For Harvard graduates, the question is not so much whether you’ll get a job with a humanities degree—it’s where.”
Moreover, studying the humanities does not close off students from taking other courses that may be more directly applicable to one’s career goals, assuming they lie elsewhere. For example, some students choose to concentrate in the humanities while fulfilling pre-medicine requirements; others choose a secondary in a more quantitative field. Given the 32 credits Harvard undergraduates must complete before graduation, the two are not mutually exclusive.
This semester, Harvard introduced its newest concentration, “Theater, Dance and Media.” At the launching ceremony for TDM, Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen said, “The arts are central to the 21st century citizen that we are hoping to educate.” This was, and still is, true. The humanities have long held a central place in the mission and purpose of this University. We must continue to cherish and honor their value.
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