UC Berkeley sees increase in humanities majors. Start of a trend or just an exception?


For years, the prevailing story about the humanities on college campuses has been that they are on a steep decline, with the number of students choosing one of the humanities degrees steadily declining for more than a decade.

But now comes a little bit of good news — the University of California, Berkeley reports it’s seeing a substantial uptick in students interested in a humanities degree.

Here are three pertinent stats Berkeley cites to justify his claim:

  • The number of individuals applying to Berkeley to become college freshmen majoring in the Arts and Humanities Department is up 43.2% from five years ago and 73% from 10 years ago.
  • The number of freshmen who have majored in the arts and humanities is 121% higher than last year.
  • Several departments — including art practice, comparative literature, philosophy, music, art history, and film and media — report the highest number of applicants in a decade.

Commenting on those numbers, Sara Guyer, dean of Berkeley’s Division of Arts and Humanities and director of the World Humanities Report, pointed to recent global events, such as the pandemic, that have led more students to take to the humanities for their interest. looking at tackling global challenges.

“So many of us found ourselves in a series of unprecedented situations with no compass or guide in our own way,” she explained. “It’s not at all surprising that students are turning to the arts and humanities as a way to understand our present moment. The imaginative, ethical, creative and analytical contributions and historical observations of humanities research and artistic production provide a valuable way to understand the complexity caused by contemporary challenges.”

If anything close to Berkeley’s increases were replicated at other institutions, it would mark a dramatic reversal in what is commonly described as a 25% drop in humanities bachelor’s degrees since 2012. 5%, and doctoral degrees are down about 9% from their respective peaks.)

The most complete data on graduate majors is maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which charts the number of undergraduate degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities in 32-degree fields. (Think of a degree field as a major or a collection of related majors.)

According to the NCES, between 2009-10 and 2019-20, the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded increased by 24%, from about 1.6 million degrees to about 2.0 million degrees, but there were major shifts in the fields graduates graduated from.

Considering only those majors that had at least 5,000 graduates in 2019-20, (the most recent year for which data is reported), nine areas of study experienced a decline in the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded over this ten-year period, despite the overall increase in the number of graduates. Of those nine subject areas, six (English Language/Literature, Foreign Languages, Liberal Arts/Humanities, Theology, Area/Ethnic/Cultural/Gender Studies, and Philosophy/Religious Studies) were in subject areas that fall under the Humanities.

During that same period, practical, vocational majors in business, health professions, and various STEM fields saw a significant increase.

A few other signs suggest that the humanities could at least make a minor comeback.

  • At some universities — Georgia Tech is one example — there are anecdotal reports of increased student interest in integrating humanities into STEM curricula. That interest may not translate into more English, history, or philosophy majors, but it will likely result in larger enrollments in a range of humanities courses.
  • Last year, Arizona State University reported that, from 2017 to 2019, the total number of first-year and transfer students majoring in humanities in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences increased, with enrollment in online humanities programs increasing by 17%. fall 2017 to fall 2019.
  • Universities in the UK are seeing a boom in students pursuing postgraduate degrees in the humanities, the most popular subjects being English, media studies, journalism, librarian and information management, and history. In the creative arts, design, music, drama, art, film and creative writing are gaining ground.

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

But as more students choose vocational majors, they may also realize that a good life and good work require more than technical skills, scientific knowledge, and quantitative skills. It requires the ability to analyze critically, think creatively, communicate clearly and collaborate. It requires the ability to ask oneself difficult questions and reject easy answers. It requires empathy. Perhaps students will discover that the humanities offers them the best opportunities to cultivate these important habits.

So will Berkeley be a leader or an outlier at this point? Are the humanities on the brink of a national recovery, or is their influx of students continuing to decline? Stay tuned to learn more about what could become an intriguing development.