Since the late 1990s, the number of students majoring in humanities subjects like English and history have declined by almost 50%. Even at Macalester College in Minnesota, which is known for international studies rather than science and technology, 41% of students major in a STEM field. That’s a 14% increase over the last ten years. Although many things have contributed to the decline of English majors, most believe the main cause is the Great Recession. In the 1980s, the top reason students went to college was to pursue an interest. Since 2008 when the recession hit, students started attending college to get a better job. Even students who have shown interest inhumanities majors during the process of searching for colleges often change their major by their sophomore year of college.
Many times it’s the parents rather than the students who are abandoning the humanities because they believe that a career in a STEM field will provide the best future for their children. Some have even threatened to kick their children out of the house or cut off financial support if they major in a humanities field. Due to the rising cost of college, many parents of millennials continue to have control over their student’s choices.
Krebs, the executive director of Modern Language Association, believes that English departments must adjust in order to recruit students who want to major in English but are concerned that they should pursue a different major with better job prospects. Because of this shift, the English major must now prove to students that it can provide job opportunities and survive in a world of digital media.
Some English departments are adjusting the curriculum to make it more coherent. The core of most English departments is literary history with a focus on cultural periods such as the Renaissance. Since literary history has shown the most serious decline in enrollments, universities are now moving towards contextual history, which shows how literary works relate to the current social and political environment.
Others believe that reacting to the decline by changing the curriculum will not solve the problem but rather make it worse. The better solution from this point of view is to return to classic books, offer classes that draw students’ interest, and shift the focus to morality, beauty, and truth.
Majoring in English opens up opportunities for a variety of career paths. According to the 2010-2012 American Community Survey, about 23% of English majors work as a teacher or librarian, 17% work in management, 10% work in administrative support, 9% work in arts, entertainment, or media, 8% pursue law school, 8% work in sales, and 5% work in business.
Many companies are actually looking for humanities majors because they seem to be better at critical thinking, cultural awareness, and engaging in the world around them. For example, Google recently reviewed their hiring process and found that STEM graduates as a whole lacked interpersonal skills they are looking for in their employees. Liberal arts or humanities majors are more likely to have the top seven skills Google is looking for, including critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and empathy. The technical STEM skills were eighth on their list, proving the value of a liberal arts education.
English majors from various professions have shared how valuable the major is in providing a good foundation for their job. For example, studying English trains people to make sense of conflicting, ambiguous information. It helps with grasping and analyzing complicated information and explaining it clearly to others. It shapes leadership skills and teaches people how to write persuasive arguments.
Also, the cultural aspect of humanities adds value and richness to the major. For example, the English department is often the center of a university’s cultural events such as poetry readings, screenings, and guest lectures, activities that bring the community together. Students who are interested in humanities should check out colleges with a strong liberal arts program such as the Colleges That Change Lives.
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