Forbes: UC Berkeley Sees Increase In Humanities Majors. Start Of A Trend Or Just An Exception?

November 6, 2022

For years the prevailing narrative about the humanities on college campuses has been that they’re in steep decline, with the number of students electing to major in one of the fields within the humanities falling steadily for more than a decade.

But now comes a small bit of good news - the University of California, Berkeley reports that it’s seeing a substantial rebound in students interested in a humanities education.

Here are three relevant statistics that Berkeley cites to justify its claim:

  • The number of individuals applying to Berkeley to become first-year students majoring in the Division of Arts and Humanities is up 43.2% compared to five years ago, and up 73% over 10 years ago.
  • The number of first-year students who’ve declared majors in the arts and humanities is up 121% over last year.
  • Several departments — including art practice, comparative literature, philosophy, music, history of art, and film and media — are reporting the highest number of applicants in a decade.

Commenting on those numbers, Sara Guyer, Dean of Berkeley’s Division of Arts and Humanities and director of the World Humanities Report, pointed to recent global events, such as the pandemic, that may have led more students to look toward the humanities because of their interest in addressing global challenges.

“So many of us, in our own ways, found ourselves in a series of unprecedented situations without a compass or guide,” she explained. “It is not at all surprising that students are turning to the arts and humanities as a way to make sense of our current moment. The imaginative, ethical, creative and analytical contributions and historical observations of humanities research and artistic production provide a valuable way to understand the complexities brought on by contemporary challenges.”

If anything close to Berkeley’s increases were to be replicated at other institutions, it would represent a dramatic turnaround in what’s been typically described as a 25% decrease in undergraduate humanities degrees since 2012. (At the graduate level, masters in the humanities have fallen 18.5%, and doctoral degrees are down about 9% from their respective peaks.)

The most complete data on the majors of college graduates are maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which charts the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities in 32 degree fields. (Think of a degree field as a major or a collection of related majors.)

According to NCES, between 2009–10 and 2019–20, the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred increased by 24%, from approximately 1.6 million degrees to approximately 2.0 million degrees, but there were big shifts in the fields in which graduates majored.

Considering only those majors that had at least 5000 graduates in 2019-20, (the most recent year for which data are reported) nine fields of study experienced decreases in awarded baccalaureates over this ten-year period despite the overall increase in college graduates. Of those nine fields, six (English language/literature, foreign languages, liberal arts/humanities, theology, area/ethnic/cultural/gender studies and philosophy/religious studies) were in fields subsumed under the humanities.

During that same time period, practical, occupationally oriented majors in business, health professions and various STEM fields saw substantial increases.

A smattering of other signs suggest that the humanities might be staging at least a small comeback.

  • At some universities - Georgia Tech is an example - there are anecdotal reports of greater student interest in integrating the humanities into STEM curricula. That interest may not translate into more English, history or philosophy majors, but it’s likely to result in larger enrollments in a range of humanities courses.
  • Last year, Arizona State University reported that, from 2017 to 2019, the total number of first-year and transfer undergraduate students majoring in the humanities in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences increased, with enrollment in online humanities programs growing by 17% from fall 2017 to fall 2019.
  • Universities in the United Kingdom are seeing a boom in students pursuing postgraduate degrees in the humanities, with the most popular subjects being English, media studies, journalism, librarianship and information management, and history. In the creative arts, design, music, drama, art, film and creative writing are gaining ground.

The decline of the humanities on college campuses has been attributed to several causes, including increased student interest in degrees that prepare them for careers, a lack of a clear direction for many humanities programs and a perceived malaise that’s plagued several of these disciplines for years.

But as more students opt for occupationally linked majors, they also may be realizing that a good life and good work require more than technical skills, scientific know-how and quantitative abilities. It requires the ability to analyze critically, think creatively, communicate clearly, and work cooperatively. It requires a capacity to ask hard questions of oneself and to reject easy answers. It requires empathy. 

Perhaps students are discovering that the humanities offers them the best opportunities to cultivate these important habits.

So will Berkeley be a leader or an outlier on this score? Are the humanities poised to rebound nationally, or will their enrollment slide continue? Stay tuned for more in what could become an intriguing development.