Amid a national debate about the utility of a liberal-arts education, wherein some universities have considered replacing some humanities departments with more career-oriented pathways, Harvard’s History department has decided to offer a set of new foundational courses and a “career course cluster” track in a bid to attract more students.
We view this “crisis in the humanities,” and the History department’s response to it, as a phenomenon best understood only by considering the ways in which our economy, Harvard, and higher education in general have changed in recent years. As the number of concentrators in the humanities and some social sciences has dwindled here at Harvard, we believe the shift away from these subjects can be explained by a tragic feedback loop between the University’s changing relationship with the economy at large, and students’ increasing academic orientation towards career-related fields, partly fueled by misconceptions about the utility of the humanities.
This phenomenon may appear appropriate and inevitable, if one believes students go to college purely to learn things that will help them find a job. This is a natural outcome of economic demand and incentives, especially as the most recent financial crisis and concerns about college affordability loom large in the minds of our generation.
This functional attitude towards higher education is only reinforced at Harvard. Through a well-oiled recruiting mechanism, our peers — 48 percent of surveyed recent grads — are funneled into fields like consulting, technology, and financial services. The significant presence of these industries has reified a culture where students may feel as if working in these fields, and studying specific concentrations to prepare for them, are their only option. We find this trend particularly troubling for industries we believe have done relatively little to further the social good.
However, it does not necessarily follow that the humanities and social sciences fail to equip students for future careers. Rather, we believe this misconception — the failure to recognize the important communicative and qualitative analysis skills that these fields foster for their students — partly explains the crisis facing the humanities and social sciences.
But at issue here is not only the utility value of the humanities and social sciences. Instead, this functional attitude towards higher education at large seems to us at bottom a rejection of the liberal arts education. As a Board, we believe in preserving the educational philosophy of the liberal arts — studying history and the humanities has deep, enduring cultural value that goes beyond immediate functional value. These fields prompt us with questions about meaning, contextualise our studies of the natural world, enable reflections about long-standing but biased assumptions, and define what it means to live within the dictates of empirical and mathematical rules. In a world of numbers, the social sciences and humanities help us understand the space between them.
Though practically difficult to achieve, a major reworking of the relationship between higher education and leading roles in the economy seems necessary if we hope, as a society, to bestow greater value on the modes of thinking taught in a liberal arts curriculum. Otherwise, there may not be much humanities departments can do, especially if students continue to opt for other fields of study. Therefore, we encourage affected departments and faculties to begin discussing this issue more widely, if they have not already done so — to show the great value that the traditional liberal arts curriculum can provide to all students, regardless of their career or life trajectory.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.