By: Elisheva Kohn  | 

Vive Les Humanités!

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted me to reevaluate the purpose and value of higher education. No longer being able to muster much enthusiasm for any of my classes, I find myself sitting mindlessly through hours of Zoom sessions, only to be confronted with hours of seemingly pointless Canvas assignments. During class, I scroll through the news and my messages; coronavirus cases are increasing, death rates are rising and friends who recently graduated continue to face unemployment as well as a feeling of impending doom. Amid this uncertainty, college classes should — one may argue — serve as an intellectual distraction from these events, a source of knowledge and debate. Students should be looking forward to their classes and enjoying their last semester(s) in college before real life begins. Based on my experiences, however, it appears that quite the opposite has occurred; students join Zoom classes to meet attendance requirements and submit assignments to maintain their GPAs, not, as some may phrase it, lishmah. Perhaps as a side effect of this phenomenon — which is not new, but has become more troubling to me in light of the pandemic — the purpose of a university degree has shifted, depending on the academic discipline; technical fields are thriving in a remote world, but the humanities seem to be … dying. 

As a senior majoring in political science and minoring in computer science, I have the unique ability to compare what it is like to experience YU through the lens of a social science student, as well as a STEM student. It appears that YU inherently favors subjects such as computer science, biology and finance over the humanities. One need not look further than YU’s PR presence, in which the university is pushing for a specific type of major, and by extension, career. Surely I am not the only one who noticed that recent “my YU story” Instagram posts on the university’s admission page featured one computer science major after another. The latest YU poster features five remarkable YU students — but not a single one represents a humanities discipline. 

Last semester, I analyzed course offerings on the Beren Campus for a computer science assignment (ironic, I know). Most classes that were dropped between 2020 and 2021 were in the Art and English departments. This spring semester, only a single foreign language class other than Modern Hebrew will be offered to Beren students: Elementary Spanish II. Gone are the days when Beren students were able to explore German, French, Latin, Russian, Arabic or Greek (yes, all these languages were once taught on the Beren Campus, though over the course of many years). Indeed, there have been student initiatives in the past, primarily starting on a popular Facebook group for Stern College students (I have found posts from 2017 and 2019), to try to get the university to offer more French courses. Alas, they were unsuccessful. 

When the Katz School of Science and Health rolled out a new cybersecurity master’s degree nearly a year ago, the undergraduate art floor of 215 Lexington Ave. was sacrificed to provide space for the program. Students protested this with a creative and effective protest campaign, removing all art pieces from the Beren Campus and replacing them with signs that said “NO ART FLOOR? NO ART.”

Perhaps YU administrators are unaware that the decision to reduce art floor space, along with the general lack of enthusiasm about the humanities on campus –– which manifests itself both in the dwindling number of available courses, as well as the lack of campus events and PR — has left a lasting impression on its students. We humanities students feel that our peers who are studying computer science, biology or finance are getting more bang for their buck — i.e. tuition — than we are. 

I have always wanted to major in political science, and my love for the discipline has not dwindled, despite the lack of encouragement from the university to pursue it. It is precisely because I love “polisci” so much that I am deeply saddened by YU’s failure to promote the pursuit of a social science or humanities education. Imagine a freshman — undecided on what he or she wants to study — arriving on campus; is there any proper incentive for this freshman to pursue theater or sociology? No. In fact, these departments recently experienced cuts in faculty hiring. 

One may be inclined to blame YU for the lack of enthusiasm and encouragement regarding the humanities. It seems, however, that the university is merely mirroring a global phenomenon. In an increasingly competitive world, it appears that students no longer opt to study for the sake of learning, but to prepare for a specific career. With tuition costs increasing annually and, more recently, university education being diminished to a mere online experience, most students –– and their parents –– want to maximize the return on their investment. Despite steady increases in overall college enrollment in the U.S., a handful of disciplines have declined in terms of the number of BA degrees awarded over the last decade or so. These fields of study include –– among others — foreign languages, philosophy and religious studies, visual and performing arts and English language and literature. 

It is worth noting that YU mandates that students take courses in some of these disciplines as part of the general education requirements. Students spend many hours exploring the humanities, though only in order to fulfill academic requirements. Last year, a close friend of mine who wanted to major in philosophy because she loved the philosophy course that she took to fulfill a “gen ed” requirement, ended up switching to a different field of study due to the overall lack of available courses. By requiring certain classes (which differ on each campus), but not actively supporting students who chose to dedicate their time to studying them in depth, YU is sending mixed messages: clearly, the university cares about the humanities, but not enough to make them as accessible and resourceful as STEM and business disciplines. 

Understandably, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of three to four years to study Plato’s works, postmodernist art or parallelism in ancient texts does not sound that attractive. It seems almost natural that YU would navigate students towards business and STEM careers, which provide more stability and a higher income on average. One may argue that the decline of the humanities is already widespread across academia, and there is nothing YU could possibly do about it. It is beyond the scope of this article to convince readers to pursue a humanities degree; most of you have already settled on a major. Besides, those of us who have experienced the thrill of exploring a new poem, symphony or painting in one of our college classes know exactly what I mean when I maintain that the humanities can offer an unparalleled feeling of personal fulfillment, as well as a plethora of career opportunities.

YU prides itself on its “Torah Umadda” motto, and indeed, the humanities offer a unique opportunity for students to pursue a meaningful and fulfilling degree. The purpose of our YU education should not solely be to land a job at Goldman Sachs or Google (although those paths are certainly admirable in their own right) so we could be featured in the next Route 4 billboard, but to find our niche field of interest and explore it together with our peers and faculty. Indeed, many before me have appealed to the university to put a greater emphasis on the humanities, but it was all seemingly for naught. The university’s recent actions such as letting go beloved professors, bulldozing the art floor, highlighting STEM and finance majors in advertisements and offering fewer humanities courses may seem trivial, but to students like myself, they add up, thereby suggesting a concerning message: that our academic goals do not matter and that we are not the pride of YU. 

Above all, YU should encourage students to pursue a major that they find meaningful — in accordance with the Torah Umadda approach to education. Many students find fulfilment in computer science, microbiology or business; but those of us who opt for a discipline in the humanities ought to feel equally valued and supported by YU. This can be achieved through offering a more humanities-heavy course catalog, hiring full-time tenured humanities professors who can properly invest in their students and featuring students of a variety of academic disciplines in promotional material. 

These suggestions may require considerable effort, but they are fundamental to the academic success and personal intellectual fulfillment of the YU student body. The implementation of these changes can go a long way to make a real, positive change, resulting in a Yeshiva University where each student is given the academic resources and communal motivation to succeed in his or her best-suited discipline.