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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Wilson: Don’t Neglect the Humanities

Understanding the humanities is the key to understanding our existence, but these fields are being abandoned in higher education.

What does it mean to be human? People have been pondering that and adjacent questions for thousands of years. Billions of thoughts and experiences from all those that came before and exist now are accessible to us through the study of the humanities: experiencing true joy, viewing a vibrant sunset, dealing with loss. Part of being a human is having a connection through common experiences with people past and present, and educators have sought to foster this bond through humanities fields. However, I feel that the study of the humanities is being neglected in American higher education. This same trend is largely reflected at Dartmouth College. However, if we invest in our humanities departments and promote the study of humanities, the College can become a more substantive beacon of intellectual thought and, most importantly, help the world better understand the human condition.

Around two thousand years ago, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote extensively about the virtue of humanitas. While originally this term referred to compassionate empathy for others, Cicero associated humanitas with the Greek idea of paideia, or a liberal arts education. For Cicero, studying literature, philosophy and similar human-centered subjects led a person to become a better orator and a more sensitive individual. This idea was expanded in the Renaissance and has informed Western education since. Today, the humanities comprises a wide variety of human-oriented subjects: religion, both modern and ancient languages, art, music, philosophy, literature and history, to name a few. However, history and law are sometimes characterized as “social sciences” alongside economics and political science due to scholarly approaches for empirical research methods. In the past century, STEM and the social sciences have found their place in higher education alongside the humanities. Unfortunately, this has had some adverse effects on the study of humanities subjects.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there has been somewhere between a 16% to 29% decrease in humanities majors from 2012-2020. In 2020, less than one in 10 graduates received a humanities degree. Even when asking people their majors here at Dartmouth, I find that I most often hear answers such as economics, government and computer science. I can count the number of religion majors that I know on one hand, and two, at best, for classics majors. 

Unfortunately, some university administrations have made this phenomenon even more extreme. In 2021, Howard University terminated its classics department, the only one of its kind at an HBCU, despite fervent pushback from students and faculty members. Also in 2021, the University of Vermont proposed cutting 27 programs in the humanities. While the initial proposal was shot down, many of the programs were still shelved, and those that remained were modified due to an $8 million budget shortfall. Interestingly enough, UVM had been working on building a $104 million STEM complex in years prior. This led me to reflect on Dartmouth’s recent construction of the Engineering and Computer Science Center as well as the Irving Institute for Energy and Society. The humanities fields at the College have not received the same attention. With the relatively low numbers of professorships, grants and research output in these departments, Dartmouth seems to fall behind many of our Ivy peers when it comes to the output of humanities research and majors. Across the pond, Oxford University balances large numbers of humanities students with those in STEM and social sciences, with a similar number of biology majors to classics majors. By expanding its humanities departments, Dartmouth could become a center for knowledge creation in the humanities and eventually attract more students to study these disciplines as well.

To the administration’s credit, this would likely be quite unprofitable at first. The stereotype of a humanities degree being “useless” is rife at Dartmouth, and thus the demand for humanities degrees is quite low among students. It is true that a major in STEM or the social sciences often leads to higher-paying jobs due to high salaries offered in industries such as tech and finance. However, while not always the case, there are also numerous stories of people entering these industries hoping to earn a stable salary and finding they hate every moment of it. Indeed, many of the most highly-coveted career paths at Dartmouth such as consulting or finance are known for their negative work culture. Regardless, people flock to them, even if they may eventually change careers to a less lucrative one.

There is something else drawing individuals to these careers apart from money: societal pressure. The bias against the humanities derives in part from American hustle culture. A uniquely American sense of mandatory consumerism causes people to feel a need to make as much money as possible. No one wants to be left behind. As a result, people are more anxious to take a risk and study the humanities. Luckily, one can take classes in the humanities without majoring in them. However, larger departments lend better to this. I find it interesting that Dartmouth offers a “liberal arts education,” even though most students in STEM or the social sciences will likely never take classes in most of the humanities departments and vice versa. Cicero and Renaissance thinkers’ ideas around humanitas revolved around the idea of studying multiple disciplines in conjunction. 

I would argue that if Dartmouth really wants to promote intellectual and ideological diversity, there should be a greater focus on a holistic humanities education. This would lead to different perspectives in STEM and in the social sciences. I believe that the humanities’ effects on mankind could be seen as less abstract and more real and personal instead. In addition, it would allow for future STEM and social science experts to gain much needed context for the backgrounds of their subjects. Indeed, math originally evolved from philosophy. Finally, it would lead to a greater appreciation of the humanities as a whole. That is the only way in which the negative social pressure to choose personally unfavorable careers and degrees can be lessened. Dartmouth is technically a business, but it should be a driver of intellectual curiosity and development first.

I cannot enumerate all the benefits of the humanities within the word count of an Opinion column. Each distinct field builds upon the others to create the story of humanity, in both thought and feeling. For instance, one cannot fully grasp the field of mathematics or its real world effects without understanding its historical context, which is in turn influenced by religion, philosophy, ancient literature and more. Finally, in a world where many feel alone, the study of the humanities is one of the greatest tools to fully witness the aggregate emotion and complexity of all people in the past, present and future. Dartmouth College should play a greater role in helping people to not forget this. First-years, try to take a class in as many humanities fields as possible. It could change the way you see the world.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.