An Israeli ‘multiversity’ makes the case for preserving humanities majors

Can you imagine a major university in the English-speaking world without an English major?

At least in Israel, that possibility does not seem so far-fetched after the Council for Higher Education released new data in August revealing how from 2013-2017, the number of Israeli college students signing up for computer science and math degrees has risen 28% (from 10,900 to 13,900), while enrollment in humanities majors is decreasing 2.3% annually.

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Meanwhile, in the US, some universities’ history majors could literally become ancient history. The University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, for instance, recommended in March that it could solve its problems of declining enrollment and a multimillion-dollar deficit by dropping English, History, and 11 other humanities and social sciences majors, while adding academic tracks with “clear career pathways.”

The common rationale that is used to support UW–Stevens Point’s proposal is that college students who major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are more likely to enjoy stable employment and higher-paying careers after graduation.

Is this true? And even if it is, does that mean we should jettison humanities majors?

“The State of the Humanities 2018: Graduates in the Workforce & Beyond,” a recently published study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, found that while humanities majors typically earn approximately $10,000 to $30,000 less than STEM and professional majors, the earnings gap closes as they grow older and their college debt is roughly the same. Additionally, nearly 87% of workers with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities reported being satisfied with their job, similar to the figures for graduates from other fields – meaning that the pay gap does not decrease their morale. If humanities majors are happy with their career choices – and even if they were not happy – why should we deprive them of their freedom to choose by eliminating their desired undergraduate majors? They earned their spot on campus, after all.

It is also widely accepted in higher education today that a student’s major does not necessarily dictate their career choice. With the right mix of networking and internships, a history or English major can, in fact, pursue a job in investment banking after graduation.

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A degree in the humanities, and more importantly, a well-rounded college education, provides students with the critical thinking skills they need to thrive in today’s complex economic environment.

University of Haifa president Ron Robin put it best when he explained, “We need to train people for jobs that don’t exist yet and to prepare them to solve problems using technologies that don’t exist yet. This is the greatest challenge facing the academic world in the 21st century. We believe that an essential first step is to start to break down the walls between the different academic disciplines. Our goal is not only to ensure that students learn different fields, but also to provide them with tools to enable them to use each field to benefit the other. This demands cognitive flexibility, creativity, thinking outside the box, and an ability to process data and use them differently in each instance. This toolbox will enable graduates to cope with today’s rapidly-changing world.”

All of the attributes that Robin lists are hallmarks of a humanities education. The University of Haifa’s unique “multiversity” model reflects an assumption that the future job market demands multidisciplinary knowledge and a toolbox that includes broad-based capabilities alongside specific fields of specialization. For instance, graduates who combine psychology and economics will be able to use their knowledge of human behavior to enhance their work as economists. Another example is the field of “digital humanities,” in which the fusion of innovative technology and the humanities equips graduates with advanced technological capabilities that are complemented by a deep grounding in various aspects of the humanities. If universities begin cutting humanities majors, our societies would miss out on the special contributions of these versatile, well-rounded professionals.

Universities should be fully inclusive educational environments that cater to students interested in all fields, not just the STEM disciplines or other “practical” majors. The University of Haifa owes its success to the fact that it is an intellectually stimulating environment where a wide range of ideas and activities flourish in a diverse community. This community includes engineering and philosophy majors alike, and one is not superior to the other. The workforce and economy of any country, in turn, need the contributions of the critical and creative thinkers who studied the humanities as undergraduates.

This is why the University of Haifa will not abandon its broad-based curriculum or its humanities majors. UW–Stevens Point, as well as all American and Israeli universities, should follow suit.

The writer is CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.

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