Are the humanities coming to an end?

By Taryn Dryfhout

The internet is full of stories about the humanities’ declining enrolments, lack of funding and poor job prospects, as people continue to speculate about the fate of this previously thriving field. With humanities numbers declining all over the world, and people trying to estimate its time of death, some are now describing it as a crisis. But, are the humanities really coming to an end?

The Ministry of Education figures indicate that even in New Zealand, the humanities are dwindling. While university enrolment numbers are climbing every year, most of this growth is in subjects such as science and engineering. While humanities enrolments climbed until around 2010, after this time they started steadily falling, a pattern which has continued. Movements within the universities are also reflecting the decline. In 2016, the University of Auckland suspended enrolments to several of their qualifications in Religion and Theology and the University of Otago announced plans to reduce their humanities staffing by 15 to 20 positions from the music, languages, English, history and anthropology departments. In March of this year it was also announced that the University of Waikato are proposing major cuts to their staffing, due to diminishing enrollment numbers. With so many departments shutting its doors, it might be time to explore some of the reasons why this shift is taking place.

Money Talks

The biggest threat to humanities, is undoubtedly the job market. We are all familiar with the joke about the BA graduate serving fries at McDonald’s. This attitude towards humanities students is shaping the perception that humanities graduates will struggle to find employment after graduation, and that consequently, an arts degree might be about as useful as having a degree in underwater napkin folding. For most people, a humanities degree is nothing more than a piece of paper and a job at a fast food chain. Humanities graduates have come to be increasingly concerned about job viability at the end of their degree, and are increasingly choosing to study subjects which can give them the certainty they need that the road to success will be paved with regular income.

In addition to needing money after graduation, students also need money to fund their degree, and recent cuts to student funding in New Zealand have no doubt contributed to the decline in humanities enrollments. Cuts to student allowance for post-graduate students, lifetime caps on student loans and allowances and the increasing level of national student debt could all be deterring people from studying something that doesn’t lead directly to a job. It’s not just the students who are concerned either. Parents who are watching the price of degree surging upwards are becoming anxious about the earning power of humanities degrees, and are encouraging their children to fix their eyes on something that will reap the best financial benefits. Doctor Jacqueline Rowarth, the Environmental Protection Authority’s Chief Scientist, has even publicly advised parents to keep their children from studying arts at university, and to instead guide them toward the sciences.

The STEM Phenomenon

In an age that is placing heavy emphasis on the sciences, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM), the humanities are being drowned out, causing a great divide between the humanities, and STEM subjects. Living in the high-tech era means there is naturally going to be a demand for people to fill the job growth that this era is fueling, creating pressure for students to have skills in the STEM realm in order to secure a job. In this increasingly technological market, the continuing value of a humanities education is being questioned.

Are These Valid Reasons?

While these factors may be contributing reasons for the decline in humanities, they aren’t necessarily all valid reasons. Firstly, while the job market continues to put people off studying the humanities, it probably shouldn’t. According to statistics, BA graduates are not starving artists, and do not end up working at a drive-through. Humanities graduates have similar employment outcomes as scientists and engineers, and while it’s not clear exactly what these graduates are doing, what is clear is that having studied humanities is still a highly desirable attribute for employers. It is also worth pointing out that the humanities offer skills that can be used in life, not just work. This current rhetoric that study must be employment-motivated suggests that life as a citizen, member of the community, partner, parent etc. is all meaningless – it perpetuates a destructive idea that all that matters is money. While having work and money is a good thing, pushing people to study things which do not make them happy robs them of enjoyment, and the opportunity for them to contribute to the world in other meaningful ways.

Secondly, while STEM education should remain a crucial part of higher education going forward, the humanities have a dignity of their own, and unique strengths that cannot be found in STEM education. Humanities majors are analysts of everything – they think critically about the world around them, and look deeper into everything in life from politics, to society, culture, and media. This kind of analytical thinking means they can offer their skills among a broad range of professions.

It may be that the humanities are simply a casualty of the changing academic landscape. While numbers may be declining within formal institutions, people are exploring the humanities more than ever before – just not in the way that they used to. People everywhere are engaging in free courses online, watching tutorials on YouTube, joining book clubs, visiting museums, libraries and looking for opportunities everywhere to learn, and explore their interests in art, music, history, religion, and philosophy. The Auckland Writers Festival this year broke records, with almost 70,000 people flocking to enjoy a week of literature, indicating that the humanities are not dead – they are just being experienced outside of the ivory tower. While traditional educational institutions may be seeing a decline in their numbers, the emergence of different learning opportunities suggests that perhaps the humanities aren’t dying, but rather are just changing.

The Value of Humanities

Doctor Hannah August, a lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies, feels that the humanities are still valuable, and relevant.

“Studying the humanities is valuable not just because it gives you skills that are useful in the world of work (and hence increases your earning capacity). It’s also valuable because it equips you to navigate twenty-first century life. It gives you the ability to critically assess information in a time when we’re bombarded with spurious ‘facts’. It gives you the ability to think deeply in a time when the pace of life encourages fast and superficial thought. It gives you the ability to reflect on past or imagined worlds in order to better understand the present. And it also happens to be fun,” says August.

Studying humanities does not just teach skills, but it develops character which is going to contribute to success in any career path, and in life in the wider sense. It produces educated, well-rounded people who care deeply about society in a very fundamental way, who engage in art, and higher forms of thought for the rest of their lives. The humanities teach us how to respond to the things which are crucial to our humanity – art, philosophy, literature – the things which make us human. If we were to move away from these things, these enriching qualities would soon disappear from our society. To dismiss them would be very short sighted.

The original question remains: are the humanities coming to an end? Whether they are in decline or not, the humanities are still very much alive. Profound scholarship is still being produced, conferences are still taking place and enrollments are still coming in from students who are deeply interested in the humanities. The fact is, the humanities will never die so long as there continues to be those who pursue it for the right reason: passion. Those who study humanities know that they do so because of a fire burning inside of them, which will not be extinguished by declining enrollments, fast food jobs or reduced student funding. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and humanities students still have a way. For them, it’s not simply a means to getting a job. It’s a calling. It is my prayer that humanities will continue to live on through these students. Otherwise, the end of humanities, might just signal the end of humanity.

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