Forget the “Conventional Wisdom” about the Arts and Humanities: Look at the Data

Sep 30, 2016

Steve Strauss, a columnist for USA Today and a business and entrepreneurship lawyer, wrote last summer that when he hires employees, he favors English majors. George Anders wrote a year ago for Forbes that liberal arts majors are “tech’s hottest ticket.” Jeffrey Dorfman crunched the numbers in 2014 and concluded, also in Forbes, that arts and humanities degrees make excellent economic sense, promising a 300- to 700-percent return on investment, competing well with all other undergraduate degrees.

So why do the myths persist?

By myths, I mean

  • the narrative of decline: nobody wants to study arts and humanities anymore.
  • the narrative of luxury: the study of arts and humanities is a waste of public funds better spent on the useful, practical fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and vocational training.
  • the narrative of certain poverty: if you major in these fields, you will be poor, and so—as parents plead with their college-age children—please please please major in something practical like business or engineering.

As a result of all these myths, even those college students who defy the grownups and major in the arts and humanities tend to feel guilty and sheepish about it, as if they have an unseemly secret habit they can’t break and shouldn’t talk about.

No disdain here for the STEM fields! On the contrary, I’m fully on board with their importance. But in the zero-sum competition for resources in higher education these days, STEM fields are on the ascent while fields like mine (English), as well as history, philosophy, and (help us) all the performing and plastic arts, have to fight for respect and resources.

That’s why I’m so glad that last week, distinguished scholar Michael Bérubé gave a talk at Calvin College that cross-examined the narrative of decline in the arts and humanities, analyzing its origins and validity. The topic is especially pointed on our campus, as we suffered cuts in our arts programs last year. We are now, I’m pleased to say, leaning our weight into the project of revitalization. Many of us are determined to build on our strengths and cultivate an arts renaissance on our campus. To do that effectively, we need to know: what is the truth about the larger societal context in which we work?

Bérubé is an English professor, formerly of U-Illinois Champaign-Urbana and now at Penn State. He has been engaged for a long time in public conversations about the humanities in higher education. And he has a gift for incisive analysis, broad perspective, and humorous good sense. I found his talk illuminating and invigorating. Because this is a topic that touches all of us in one way or another, I’ve distilled a few of his main points.

The data do not support the narrative of decline in interest in the arts and humanities. In fact, the opposite.

Using data from the Digest of Education Statistics as well as other sources, Bérubé and others who have examined the actual numbers conclude that despite all the lamentations and hand-wringing, “undergraduate enrollments in the arts and humanities combined are almost precisely where they were in 1970.” While it’s true that the percentage of English degrees is down since 2008,

The visual and performing arts are booming, and have been for years; they now account for nearly 100,000 degrees, a historic high. Overall, humanities degrees account for 15.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—down from 17 percent in 2008, but not doing too badly compared to the social and behavioral sciences at 15.5 percent, natural sciences and mathematics at 8.3 percent, computer sciences and engineering at 8.8 percent, and education at 5.3. Business, traditionally the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education, accounts for 19.2 percent of all degrees, and “other fields” 27.4.

The data do not support the myth that humanities/arts majors earn less than other majors. And remember, a college degree in anything puts you way ahead in earning power.

Dorfman is not the only economic analyst who reaches this conclusion. Remember to look at midcareer data and lifelong earnings. What you earn the first year out of college does not necessarily guarantee high or low earnings overall.

Serious business people are saying, emphatically, that they want to hire humanities/arts majors.

Bérubé pointed out that essays testifying to business leaders’ need for humanities and arts majors “appeared in Forbes magazine, not in the Quarterly Journal of Advanced Marxist Subversion.”

Many, many business people understand that all the classic things we professors say about the arts and humanities are true. The skills learned in these fields are indeed transferrable to the workplace: critical thinking, creative problem solving, excellent writing and communication skills, and the ability to research, manage and assimilate huge amounts of complex information. In a rapidly churning, global economy, people need flexibility and long perspective. That’s what the arts and humanities cultivate.

Bérubé also pointed out that anything having to do with “design” is in high demand right now. This is in harmony with the “whole new mind” theory of author Daniel Pink and others who forecast the need not just for STEM but for STEAM—the A stands for arts.

The “decline” narrative gets perpetuated by (at least) two sources: 1) certain disgruntled faculty members who do not like the direction their field is heading and 2) politicians and other people in positions of power who distrust higher education for asking uncomfortable questions.

This was a complex part of Bérubé’s argument, based on his long history with this public conversation. At one crucial point, Bérubé observed that everyone loves to talk about “critical thinking” until there’s some actual content to it: gender politics, the history of race relations, genetic engineering or other topics that challenge people in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life causes trouble. Yes, and that’s exactly why we need it.

We can push back on the myths about the arts and humanities with real data, and we should—while also objecting to merely economic metrics.

Of course those of us in these fields want to argue that the arts and humanities have intrinsic value. Instrumental arguments—such as that these degrees prepare one for the workplace—are not sufficient. In the current climate, however, such arguments can be, shall we say, instrumental. They work in our favor, so why not use them?

While Bérubé is concerned with questions of broad public good and the use of public funds in higher education, the Christian community, I would contend, has even better reasons to steward robust study of arts and humanities. Christians are plagued by economic anxiety and influenced by public discourse like anyone else, so if the data-driven, instrumental arguments can help, so be it. But Christians are called, as my college’s mission statement puts it “to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” For that, as a body we need all the fields of human knowledge and the fullness of human creativity and imagination.

Thus we should be encouraging young people who feel so gifted and inclined to—yes—study the arts and humanities with seriousness and joy. We should strengthen the structures and resources that enable them to do so. This is not a luxury, but a responsibility.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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