Increase in Humanities Majors at UC Berkeley Opens Conversation for the Value of a Humanities Education

four students sitting in the classroom
January 10, 2023

LOS ANGELES — After decades of decline in humanities divisions across college campuses, the University of California, Berkeley has reported a resurgence of students declaring majors in the Division of Arts and Humanities — an increase of 73 percent compared to ten years ago.

For years, nearly every humanities field has seen sharp drops in enrollment. For the first time in two decades, U.S. degrees in the four major humanities fields—English, history, philosophy and languages—risk dipping below 100,000.

According to UCLA campus statistics, humanities majors compose merely 8.57 percent of undergraduate student enrollment within the College of Letters and Science.

However, recent data suggests that the record decline in humanities majors may end within the following years. At UC Berkeley, the number of first-year students that are declared as arts and humanities majors has increased by 121 percent over the past year.

Further, UC Berkeley’s humanities departments like comparative literature, film and media, and philosophy have reported the highest applicant pool in a decade. Students may be realizing that the humanities offer the perfect opportunity to develop critical analysis, communication and collaboration skills that go hand in hand with technical and quantitative abilities for the workplace.

Globally, there are also signs that the humanities may be staging a substantial rebound — registrations for master’s programs in Humanities and Social Sciences at Dublin City University have nearly doubled over the past 10 years; demand for a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University increased by 28 percent between 2020 and 2022; Arizona University reported that from 2017 to 2019, enrollment in humanities programs grew by 17 percent; and universities in the UK recorded greater student interest in pursuing postgraduate degrees in the humanities.

The question now is what place the humanities will be able to hold in a university setting as the dominant perspective towards the humanities warns students to steer away. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, humanities departments began to dwindle due to U.S. budget cuts eliminating degrees and courses like history, art and foreign languages.

Students have increasingly fled the field because they have been led to believe that humanities majors have poor career prospects based on negative stigma and stereotypes surrounding the various humanities disciplines.

Contrary to popular belief, an analysis found that humanities majors under the age of 35 are actually less likely to be unemployed than social science and life science majors.

In the UK, creative industries are actually driving national and local economic growth. Between 2013 and 2030, up to 900,000 new jobs could be generated in creative industries, with an increase of 11 percent on average in local economies in the UK, through skillsets developed in the humanities.

Creative and empathetic critical thinking skills that are hard to replicate with machines are at the forefront of employers’ minds across many industries, considering that a degree in the humanities means considering the acquisition of and the ability to tackle contemporary societal issues utilizing different perspectives and approaches.

Liberal arts degrees teach students to value perspectives other than their own, gather and analyze information, and utilize empathy to solve complex problems with other people.

Sara Guyer, dean of Berkeley’s Division of Arts and Humanities, explains that global events like the pandemic have led many students toward the humanities to make sense of intricate contemporary challenges. The “imaginative, ethical, creative and analytical contributions and historical observations of humanities research and artistic production” are crucial in addressing urgent questions, says Guyer.

Isabelle V., a first-year English major at UCLA, believes that her humanities degree will thoroughly equip her with communication and critical thinking skills that are difficult to develop in areas of study more rooted in technology.

“What makes a humanities degree valuable is how they strengthen the most basic and fundamental experiences necessary for most careers,” she says. Isabelle aspires to double major in Education and become a professor in English.

President Biden is also a firm proponent of the humanities, having made a proclamation and signed an executive order in support of the humanities and arts, calling attention to the vitality of these disciplines in all sectors of a global society. In addition, Biden celebrated National Arts and Humanities Month in October 2022 as well.

An education program integrating the humanities, arts, and sciences leads to broader knowledge that is vital to creating people who can become both leaders and citizens. At Georgia Tech, there are reports of greater student interest in the integration of the humanities into STEM curricula.

The 2018 consensus report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, known as “Branches From the Same Tree”, determines that programs integrating the humanities and arts with STEM disciplines are correlated with “improved educational and career outcomes” and recruitment. Positive outcomes include increased communication, visuospatial reasoning, teamwork and critical thinking skills; more genuine enjoyment of learning; and higher graduation rates and GPAs.

Rather than being silenced or reduced to surface-level general education requirements, the humanities deserve to work in conjunction with STEM disciplines to cultivate a holistic, contemporary educational experience.

Though the humanities are admittedly in a crisis with a diminishing place in higher education, their recent resurgence demonstrates that they will certainly persist as an instrument for enacting global perspectives and critical inquiry useful for navigating a rapidly changing world.

The Davis Vanguard