UC Berkeley is seeing an increase in humanities majors. Beginning of a trend or just an exception?

For years, the dominant narrative about humanities on college campuses has been that it is in steep decline, with the number of students choosing to major in one of the humanities fields steadily declining for more than a year. decade.

But now here’s a little good news – the University of California, Berkeley reports that it is experiencing a substantial rebound among students interested in training in the humanities.

Here are three relevant statistics Berkeley cites to support its claim:

  • The number of people applying to Berkeley to become freshmen majoring in the Arts and Humanities Division is up 43.2% from five years ago and 73% from 10 years ago.
  • The number of freshmen reporting an arts and humanities major increased 121% from last year.
  • Several departments – including artistic practice, comparative literature, philosophy, music, art history and film and media – report the highest number of applicants in a decade.

Commenting on the numbers, Sara Guyer, dean of Berkeley’s arts and humanities division and director of the World Humanities Report, pointed to recent global events, such as the pandemic, which may have led to more students turn to the human sciences because of their interest. to meet global challenges.

“Many of us, in our own way, have found ourselves in an unprecedented series of situations without a compass or a guide,” she explained. “It’s not at all surprising that students are turning to the arts and humanities to make sense of our current moment. Imaginative, ethical, creative and analytical contributions and historical observations of research and artistic production in the humanities offer a valuable means of understanding the complexities brought about by contemporary challenges.

If anything close to the Berkeley increases were to be replicated at other institutions, it would represent a dramatic turnaround in what is generally described as a 25% decrease in undergraduate degrees in the humanities since 2012. (At University levelhumanities masters fell 18.5% and doctorates fell about 9% from their respective peaks.)

The most comprehensive data on college graduate majors is maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which tracks the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by US colleges and universities in 32 fields. (Think of a field of study as a major or set of related majors.)

According to NCES, between 2009-2010 and 2019-2020, the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded increased by 24%, from about 1.6 million degrees to about 2.0 million degrees, but there are there have been great changes in the fields in which graduates have specialized.

Considering only majors that had at least 5,000 graduates in 2019-20 (the most recent year for which data is reported), nine fields of study saw a drop in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded during this period ten years despite the overall increase in the number of college graduates. Of these nine fields, six (English Language/Literature, Foreign Languages, Liberal Arts/Humanities, Theology, Area/Ethnic/Cultural/Gender Studies, and Philosophy/Religious Studies) fell under the fields of Humanities.

During this same period, practical and professional majors in business, health professions, and various STEM fields have seen substantial increases.

A handful of other signs suggest the humanities may be staging at least a small comeback.

  • At some universities – Georgia Tech is an example – there are anecdotal reports greater student interest in integrating the humanities into STEM programs. This interest may not translate into more majors in English, history, or philosophy, but it is likely to translate into more enrollment in a range of humanities courses.
  • Last year, Arizona State University reported that, from 2017 to 2019, the total number of freshmen and undergraduate transfer students majoring in the humanities at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences increased, with enrollment in online humanities programs increasing by 17% from fall 2017 to fall 2019.
  • Universities in the UK are seeing a boom in students pursuing higher education in the humanities, with the most popular subjects being English, media studies, journalism, library and information management, and history. In the creative arts, design, music, drama, art, film and creative writing are gaining ground.

The decline of humanities on college campuses has been attributed to several causes, including increased student interest in degrees that prepare them for careers, the lack of clear direction for many humanities programs, and a malaise perception that has plagued many of these disciplines for years.

But as more and more students choose profession-related majors, they may also find that a good life and a good job require more than technical skills, scientific know-how and ability. quantitative. It requires the ability to critically analyze, think creatively, communicate clearly and work cooperatively. It requires an ability to ask difficult questions and reject easy answers. It takes empathy. Students may find that the humanities offer them the best opportunities to cultivate these important habits.

So will Berkeley be a leader or an outlier on this? Is the humanities about to rebound nationally, or will its enrollment decline continue? Stay tuned for more on what could become an intriguing development.

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