By: Avi Strauss | News  | 

Are the Humanities Disappearing on Campus? Wilf Campus sees 58% Drop in Humanities Majors Since 2012

Humanities majors at Yeshiva College have declined by 58% since the Fall of 2012, a review by The Commentator has found. Currently, there are just 44 students with a declared major in one of the humanities, representing just 4.7% of all declared majors on the Wilf campus.

In Fall 2012, there were 105 declared majors in the humanities on the Wilf campus, representing 12.8% of declared majors on the Wilf campus.

Generally considered a fixture of higher academia, the humanities encompass disciplines that cover human society and culture, and their development over time. The Wilf campus features six humanities majors, in English, History, Music, Philosophy, Language, and Jewish Studies. Studies like Art History and and Religion are offered as well, often as components of YC’s Core curriculum, but students cannot earn bachelor's degrees in those disciplines.

Humanities majors declined on the Beren campus over the same span, albeit less dramatically, dropping to 82, from 110, an overall drop of 25%.

The news of this decline comes just months after YU President Dr. Ari Berman, who has a master’s in Medieval Jewish Philosophy and a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought, both humanities disciplines, was criticized by some for not referencing the humanities in his investiture speech in September, while focusing on the evolving disciplines of STEM.

Part of the decline can be attributed to the overall shift in students enrolling in the Sy Syms School of Business instead of Yeshiva College, which for a short period actually surpassed Yeshiva College as the majority undergraduate program on the Wilf campus this past spring.

The current number of students on the Wilf campus, 1,040, is nearly identical to the overall number in 2012, which was 1,048.

To some degree, the decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities on campus reflects a national trend. From 2012 to 2015, the most recent year in which national data is available, the share of American students declaring their “first major” (primary major) in the humanities declined 9.5%, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. .

The Yeshiva College Deans believe such trends are apparent and perhaps magnified on the Wilf campus.“This is a national pattern,” said Yeshiva College Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Joanne Jacobson, “a reflection I think of [understandably] growing anxieties among students—and their parents—about making a living in a time of economic uncertainty and change.”

Sharing a similar sentiment, Associate Dean of Operations and Student Affairs Fred Sugarman remarked, “Basically, with the cost of college being so high, parents and students are asking for majors which deliver careers.”

Nonetheless the Deans, both of whom have doctoral degrees in English, believe the humanities represent a viable path to a career.

“The fact is, a liberal arts degree in the humanities is excellent preparation for most careers, and many employers to whom I speak say that they are looking for graduates who are culturally sophisticated, and can think critically—outside the box—and that humanities grads can be ideal for them,” said Jacobson.

Data on the job prospects for humanities majors backs up this claim. In 2013, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the unemployment rate for college graduates with whose terminal degree was a bachelor’s in the humanities was 5.4%, just marginally higher than 4.6% unemployment rate across all disciplines. Moreover, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, humanities graduates from the class of 2015 were employed at higher rates than those in the class of 2014, which can be attributed in part to employers seeking the “soft skills” related to written and oral communication that many humanities majors possess.

Regardless of their major, Wilf campus students are obligated to take several Core courses, many of which are taught by humanities professors and focus on interdisciplinary studies related to history and English. Syms students must take four Core courses, while YC students are required to take seven.

All YC students are obligated to take courses in the Core course categories of Contemporary World Cultures, Interpreting the Creative, Cultures Over Time, and Human Behaviors and Social Institutions, in addition to the introductory writing course. Exemptions are not given for these foundational courses, which often involve seminar style classes with heavy reading and writing components.

Students entering YU’s business school as opposed to YC appears to be both a cause and symptom of the decline, as greater numbers of students opting to pursue coursework with clearer paths towards future employment. Many students have simply chosen to major in areas like accounting and finance while the share of students majoring in STEM has increased slightly as well.

Currently, STEM represents 60% of all declared YC majors. In 2015, 37% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in American schools were in Science and Engineering fields, according to the National Science Board. This count included the social sciences, which means including majors like psychology and economics. Those majors constitute an additional 29.5% of declared YC majors, but have declined 31%, to 123 students, since 2012.

These trends indicate a greater focus by YU students on pre-professional studies, like the pre-health fields, and areas associated with the acquisition of “technical skills” like the ability to understand financial statements or analyze data.

In this regard, Dean Jacobson noted most YU students spent their K-12 education in costly private schools, which place certain stresses on students when it comes to deciding on a major. “College is expensive, and YU draws on a community in which parents have already spent a great deal of money on private education and want to make sure that their children can make their way professionally, and that they can afford the same way of life,” she said.

Still, despite the pressures that have led students to other courses of studies, Dean Sugarman reiterated the importance of a liberal arts education. “The liberal arts puts you in touch with your humanity. Liberal arts make college an exploration of one’s basic beliefs and self-awareness.”