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Are we the last generation of English majors?
A recent New Yorker article warns we might be. The piece worries that humanities enrollment — which has declined by 17 percent over the past decade — is in “free fall” due to a mixture of professional pressures, changing university investment patterns, and economic incentives facing students.
It’s only the latest contribution to the now-ubiquitous humanities versus STEM dichotomy — including two nearly decade-old opinions from this Editorial Board, titled “Let Them Eat Code” and “Let Them Eat Camus,” in which we found the latter ascendant and the former moribund.
However, when it comes to sweeping pronouncements about the extinction of English, we remain skeptical. This crisis narrative seems exaggerated and anecdotal at best, stemming from a lack of detailed statistics regarding the so-called decline of humanities.
To start, the very definition of what constitutes a humanities field is in flux. Different definitions of a humanity include or omit fields like History inconsistently, and adjacent or interdisciplinary fields — think of Harvard’s own Social Studies or History of Science concentrations — often expose students to humanities scholarship, even if they’re not officially counted as such.
We do know that the absolute number of humanities degree holders has, on net, increased over the past five decades. Furthermore, students of other disciplines can and do benefit from humanities education at most modern universities, thanks to core and distributional requirements.
Before making broad claims about the vitality — or, more specifically, the lack thereof — of the humanities, we find it crucial to look at data such as per-year enrollment statistics for humanities classes in order to paint a more granular image of the state of Camus on campuses today.
Of course, the humanities are incredibly worthwhile; none of our skepticism about the statistics attached to the narrative of their extinction, as over-sensationalized as we may consider it to be, should be taken to suggest otherwise. There is both innate and instrumental value to literature, philosophy, and art — subjects that have illuminated human civilization for millennia and will almost undoubtedly continue to do so even amidst dramatic projections of their decline.
However, many who decry the “death of the humanities” falsely see the humanities as claiming exclusive rights to complex conversations about what it means to be human — conversations that, the logic follows, will disappear along with the humanities as we know them. This displays a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of STEM scholarship. Biology and chemistry investigate the complex mechanisms allowing for human life. Mathematics and physics model every aspect of our quotidian existence using reason and logic. And increasingly, computer science is dealing directly with questions about what it means to be human as it tries to create humanity without the human — through artificial intelligence.
The discourse around the decline of the humanities also tends to focus on the most traditional and Western-centric fields, particularly English, ignoring the emergence of novel fields like ethnic studies. Generalizing the decline of English degrees into the decline of the humanities as a whole reduces the humanities to only one point of view, ignoring newfound diversity in the ways we tell stories about the human experience.
We would also be remiss not to address one of the primary sticking points in the alleged conflict between code and Camus: doubt regarding the employability of humanities majors. There is a perceived relationship between students’ majors and their career prospects. Some students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, may feel pressured to choose their major with this perception in mind.
But in general, we do not definitively know why students choose the majors they do. Each student weighs various questions when making this personal decision — and employability, although a realistic concern for most, is often just one among multiple factors. Attributing perceived declines in humanities degrees solely to perceptions of employment reflects a general bias against the humanities as unemployable fields of study.
Given the magnitude of careers out there, every discipline can be studied on multiple pre-professional paths with varying levels of desirability and starting salary. Humanities degrees like history, English, and philosophy are incredibly popular among future high-profile lawyers. Meanwhile, many STEM students, especially those in more theoretical fields like pure mathematics, could spend much of their careers in the more opaque world of academia.
We reject many of these artificial divides between disciplines altogether. All too often, we perceive a sensationalized conflict between STEM and the humanities, pitting each side against each other in an unproductive Manichean narrative. In reality, our world is nothing if not interdisciplinary, especially when addressing important questions about what it means to be human. And the benefits of a broad, well-rounded education are manifold: As political theorists have long recognized, a well-functioning society is oiled by informed, engaged public discourse among citizens knowledgeable in a variety of fields.
Accordingly, it’s essential for Harvard — and all schools — to fund disciplines, no matter their enrollment, in line with their needs. Dwindling numbers can reflect many things, especially shifting attitudes and demographics amongst students. They do not, however, determine how important a discipline is, and should not be treated as such.
In the meantime, we feel that it’s time to rethink the General Education system. Courses are too easy and too shallow, allowing students to skate through Harvard by only ever taking challenging and engaging courses in their chosen discipline. This is not only contradictory to the promise of a liberal arts education but also detrimental to our collective understanding of the world. We urge Harvard to consider amending the GenEd system to instead focus on foundational, survey-style courses across prominent disciplines, allowing students to deeply and systematically engage with the diverse lines of inquiry in academia.
Are we the last generation of English majors? No. We’re also not the last generation of computer scientists, biologists, or mathematicians. The future is interdisciplinary. The energy currently invested in unproductive squabbles between STEM and the humanities should be harnessed into collective dialogue and inquiry seeking to drive our current world forward.
In short, we not only can, but also should, have our code and eat Camus.
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.
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