The Death of The Humanities
Our Exclusion from the Humanities
By Emily Laffey
Emily Laffey (she/they) is a third-year undergraduate student who transferred to the University of Michigan from William Rainey Harper College. She is a pre-law student majoring in Arts & Ideas with a focus in political art. They are heavily involved in the arts and advocacy work, particularly through working at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) and working on a personal project that investigates the lack of diversity and representation within the arts and the public education system.
We have been kept out; community college students, low-income students, first-generation college students, and so many more are deprived of the opportunity to follow their passions, or even explore them. The humanities rely so heavily on learning from the experiences of those around you, so it is critical that underrepresented students have the opportunity to be in these classrooms. Only then can the humanities really thrive.
As a community college graduate who was heavily involved in my school’s honors program, I had the privilege of meeting dozens of intelligent, creative, and capable students, though this meant that I had to watch many of them go through the same experience that I did when transferring to U of M. An overwhelming number of students at community colleges have to choose their majors based on the correlating job’s salary, not on their academic abilities or values. Now, job prospects are a factor for practically every student, but it holds so much weight for underrepresented people that is impossible to sympathize with unless you’ve felt it for yourself. The lack of financial opportunity is a debilitating obstacle that keeps underrepresented students from following their passions and exploring the humanities.
Personally, I barely made it to U of M, not because of my academics or my test scores, but because I could not afford it. I made a decision that many people in my position wouldn’t. I am a first-generation college student whose family has no savings due to medical expenses. My situation was so unique that no predetermined form considered me eligible for need-based aid. Additionally, I am majoring in Arts & Ideas in the Humanities because the unique curriculum allows me to study all of my passions一the arts, humanities, and social justice一so I can eventually go to law school to study civil rights. With the short-term and long-term threat of tuition, lack of job security, and creativity-based education, it is easy to see why so many people disagreed with my decision. I chose U of M because I greatly value my education, more so than potentially becoming a homeowner in the future. I knew that this school’s values, curriculum, and resources would provide me with opportunities that no one in my family had been given before. Even still, it is a risk, one that many people can’t take. Never would I have thought of going into debt as a privilege, until I realized first-hand how difficult the process is.
As an 18-year-old college freshman, I knew my values and what I wanted to pursue. During my first few weeks of college, I researched photojournalism—a career path that combined my passions of art and social justice. Still, when someone asked me about my major or career, I would begin my spiel about how it would probably be something with art, or maybe social science, but also maybe the humanities. Even though I knew what I wanted to study, I tip-toed around it because people don’t like to hear it, particularly family. People talked as if I didn't have the option to study a discipline without a direct, stable career path, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. Not to mention, if you are studying the humanities, you already know not to tell your grandparents.
It's not a coincidence that many of us share this experience. Whether you’re first-gen, low-income, an immigrant, etc., they’re worried because they know that you lack resources that others are using, and have been using for a long time, to succeed. Many universities value diversity, equity, and inclusion now, which is an amazing development. However, talking about diversity and action plans only goes so far when the people that you are talking about can’t afford to be in the classroom.
Getting into a university, funding education, and making the transition are all battles of their own for underrepresented students. Fortunately, progress is being made, but far too slowly. If you are able to get through all of this and make it to a credible university, now you must decide on your major, your educational path, and your career trajectory. As someone whose major is so absurd that even U of M students haven’t heard of it, I dread talking about my biggest passions in life because people are worried about me and the instability of following my values.
Universities, spaces historically reserved for the wealthy, are slowly becoming more diverse. People who have the privilege to try, to experiment, and to fail have more freedom to pursue less structured educational paths. The study of the humanities requires creativity, communication, and uncertainty that more structured and stable fields don’t. Without resources to support us or food to feed us, marginalized communities are ushered towards structured paths despite their values or passions, while privileged identities maintain the freedom to choose. Without true diversity and equity comes the death of the humanities.
How is the perception of the humanities different around the world? Are they as valued elsewhere?
By Michael Hartt and Sydney Lesnick
Interviewee bios: Antonio Hernandez and Maria Rodriguez are both international semester exchange students in the Ross School of Business. Their home college is University of Navarra in Spain. Rodriguez’ home country is Spain while Hernandez’ is Colombia. They are both studying business administration at their home and international exchange universities.
The death of the humanities is not limited to the U.S., according to Maria Rodriguez and Antonio Hernandez, two Spanish exchange students at the Ross School of Business.
“The humanities are on a decline everywhere,” Hernandez said. “There are factors that influence this differently in America, but in Spain, we are similarly seeing people prioritize their job (prospects) when choosing a specialty.”
A study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences supports their statement, showing that from 2015 to 2018 the average share of students getting a degree in a humanities-related field fell by 5 percent worldwide.
Rodriguez explained that humanities degrees have a relatively negative perception in Spain for similar reasons as in the United States. Students are reluctant to major in a field without a direct conduit to a profession because of the relative lack of job prospects.
“I feel that everywhere now, in the end, the jobs that are most valued are the ones that are more prestigious, give you more money, or give you more economic satisfaction,” Rodriguez said. “ I feel like people are least able to (get those things) when they pursue a career in the humanities.”
Hernandez and Rodriguez both noted that their perception of humanities in America is strongly influenced by what they have experienced at the University of Michigan. They noted the stark differences between the humanities in their Spanish universities and at Michigan. In Spain, universities have a more comprehensive view of the benefits of the humanities. They use them as ways to expand the perspective of business students, while in the U.S. an interest in them is perceived as mutually exclusive from an interest in business.
Interestingly, while there does not seem to be as much diversity in the humanities canon in Spain, Spanish universities still prioritize exposure to the humanities in a manner that U-M, especially Ross, does not.
“They offer humanities modules that are compulsory for university students [regardless] of their degree,” Rodriguez notes. This is something that she values in her program, as it helps to preserve the humanities.
In contrast, Ross does not require students to complete courses in the humanities. Bachelor of Business Administration students must complete courses in three out of the four distribution groups from the college of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). While humanities is a distribution group offered, students may decide to omit that category and complete the other three instead. However, other colleges at U-M require students to study the humanities. For instance, in order to earn an LSA degree, it is necessary to complete multiple humanities courses, the number of which varies by major.
Another difference between instruction in the U.S. and on the continent is the extent to which American universities promote diverse thought in comparison to Spanish institutions. Hernandez said that Spanish university students are driven by their culture to learn life skills and skilled trades in a way that American university students are not.
In Spain, “there's an emphasis in studying different things outside the university, for example, fixing a car — something that's going to give you a job, but does not require as much intellectual effort,” Hernandez explained.
However, this is not as prominent in the United States, especially at Michigan, Rodriguez said.
“I have noticed that here, you are more flexible in terms of how you want to organize your degree, in the sense that you could also minor in something that is not related at all.”
She prefers having this opportunity, as it allows students to explore a wide range of topics that ultimately diversify their knowledge, especially those that encourage creativity.
Both Hernandez and Rodriguez agree that it is essential for Spanish universities to embrace the multicultural lens that American universities imbue in their humanities courses. They said this is essential for the humanities to survive in Spain.
“If people are not majoring in the humanities and start taking more diverse modules on the humanities, they may even feel that they can actually pursue a career in humanities or linked humanities with their different career paths,” Rodriguez said. “It is important for the courses to appeal to Spanish students (grappling) with globalism.”
Hernandez agrees with this ideology, but also stresses the importance of linking humanities with popular careers, such as business and medicine.
“What is needed is actually to have a link between that multiculturalism and how to implement that in different career paths,” he explains. He feels that this is the best way to expand interest in this area of study.
Deconstructing the Stigma: Why We Need the Humanities
By Gigi Alaish and Jenna Hausmann
Interviewee bio: Sari Rosenberg is a Junior in the College of Literature, Science and Arts. She is pursuing a degree in Women and Gender Studies with minors in Judaic Studies and Social Work. She is the chair of the undergraduate governing board at Michigan Hillel and plans to go to either Rabbinical school or law school post-graduation.
Studying the humanities allows one to gain insight into the human experience, to explore what it means to be human and how we have gotten to where we are today. In an era of unbridled development, new technologies, and a rapid increase in the demand for STEM jobs, people often question the value of earning a humanities degree.
Moreover, humanities majors frequently face judgment because of their choice of study. This stigma manifests because these degrees don’t directly correlate to a job pathway, and therefore, are considered less important than those that are more directly and inherently pre professional.
Sari Rosenberg, a Women and Gender Studies major at the University of Michigan, shared her experiences and opinions on the importance of the continued study of the humanities.
Rosenberg said “A lot of people [are] very judgmental that Women and Gender Studies is my major because they think it's not useful, or that nothing's really going to change for women…it [makes] me feel like I'm just wasting four years of my life.”
Society’s doubts about the value of the humanities commonly loom in the minds of those majoring in the field. Choosing a major is a challenging decision, and the societal pressure to choose a STEM-based major makes it even harder to pursue one’s passion when it isn’t rooted in the sciences.
Despite the judgment that Rosenberg and other humanities majors experience, studying the humanities is valuable. Being a humanities major requires frequent reading and writing — both of which heighten communication skills. In addition to this, humanities students tend to perform lots of in-depth analysis through essay writing and researching, which leads to improvements in critical thinking and problem solving. Being a humanities major promotes understanding of societal issues which ultimately encourages empathy, social equality, and justice. Given these positive outcomes, the value of a humanities degree cannot be ignored and deserves to be recognized.
However, what makes a major valuable varies from person to person; some base it on projected salaries, and others on whether careers in the field are in high demand. A common myth is that humanities are typically lower paying and in less demand— resulting in many people feeling doubtful about pursuing a career in this field. However, Harvard Professor of Public Policy, David Deming, has pointed out that “the advantage for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up”.
The emphasis on choosing a career path strictly based on money can suppress one’s creative passions and interests. One may deny their dreams of becoming a journalist or social worker and work to become a doctor. However, studying the humanities does not mean that your job has to be directly related to the field; one can still be a lawyer, doctor, businessman/woman with a humanities degree. Many grad schools encourage studying something unrelated to the graduate degree. This results in a more well-rounded education that can benefit them in any career.
Further, to have a well-rounded world, we need experts in every field. Rosenberg discusses the importance of having a diverse array of skills in the workplace and world overall. She claims that science is important, but that studying material can only get someone so far.
Rosenberg said that the humanities “find out why we act as we do…the social influences and the biological influences…(which is why I think they) are important for maintaining our society.”
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, if you enjoy the humanities, why not major in it? We need people who have a deep understanding of humanity in order to improve our society; it helps the world learn from the past and promotes growth in the future. From studying things like art, philosophy, and history, we can find not only an increase in knowledge but beauty and appreciation of the human experience. In a world filled with reasons to feel hopeless in humanity, it’s important to appreciate the things that unite us. Let’s work to encourage those passionate about the humanities and to improve the field’s perception— for individuals’ personal benefit and the world’s.
How Michigan English is Studying to Survive
By Logan Klinger
Interviewee bio: Briahna Anders (she/her) is the undergraduate program manager for the English Department. She has been working in her position since August 2022, and before her promotion was an English Language and Literature Curriculum Coordinator. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 2015 with a bachelor in arts degree in linguistics and Asian studies.
It’s natural to think about English when enumerating the humanities. This major has connotations – ones that often involve dusty old books, degrees without purpose, and dreams that never make it off the page. Fortunately for the English majors at Michigan, these ideas are greatly misguided.
Briahna Anders is the undergraduate program manager for the English Language and Literature program at the University of Michigan. A large part of her responsibility is ensuring that English majors can pursue their prospective careers with confidence and success.
Like other humanities majors, the English major is versatile – which does not come without hardship. The English department faces difficulty in helping students find direction. With a major as broad as English, many students must consider what they want to explore.
“Every professional needs a good communicator, a good critical thinker, a creative thinker. My job is asking the students what they want to explore,” Anders said.
The career paths of non-humanities majors, such as engineering or pre-med majors are more obvious. Everyone wants to walk out of college and start making money, and as Anders explained, there are social pressures that make humanities majors feel they have to prove their degree has genuine merit.
“The world is wide open, which is pretty difficult. It takes a lot of time and courage to try different things and figure out what you want,” Anders said.
With the range of an English major’s communication skills, career options are limitless. Every profession and business needs the asset of an excellent communicator. English majors spend countless hours reading and writing to hone these abilities.
“You pick up the skill of figuring out what someone is really trying to say and then practicing that skill – what am I trying to convey? How can I package my message in a certain way that different audiences can comprehend?” Anders said.
On the Literature, Science, and the Arts College website, there is a graphic of a wheel where students can view what type of careers their majors entered from 1942–2021; past English majors entered fields such as law, marketing, and medicine. Anders attributes the range of career choices as a critical component to the English Department’s goal of creating interdisciplinary classes. Many English courses at Michigan integrate topics like history, political science, and astronomy.
“Classes like that give students a new perspective on what the humanities and of what STEM can look like,” Anders said. “It’s a collision of two worlds.”
The English Department’s enrollment has been declining, like other humanities disciplines. In the past ten years, the number of average students in the English Department has declined by 200. There is a fear that the enrollment issue is due to the stereotype that English majors devote their lives to “dusty old literature.”
But Anders argues, “dusty old literature has a context that if people actually sat down and considered, it’s actually really interesting…I think that’s what makes English in this department so cool. We look at the context, the history …it’s interdisciplinary.”
The department is working to mitigate its enrollment issue by dynamically marketing its classes.
“On the course guide, we’re trying to tweak our topics. If we pull out cool themes and topics and neatly package it, it’s a winning recipe to get more students in our classes,” Anders said. Classes for Winter 2024 include eye-catching titles like Serious and Smut and Ghost Stories.
The requirements of the English major have changed Fall 2023. Previously, prospective majors had to complete 33 credits of coursework and enroll in a class called English 298: Intro to Lit Studies. The department removed English 298 from the prerequisite requirements, and lowered the credit requirement from 33 to 27. Until these changes were made, the number of English majors was stable for three years. But, from Fall 2022 to Fall 2023, the department gained 25 new students — a staggering number for the humanities, and also the first increase in the number of students in ten years.
As of Fall 2023, English is still one of the top 20 majors when ranked in terms of the number of students. It seems like the English Department took a lesson from their books to reform with innovation. Regardless of what people say, or even what future enrollment figures look like, Anders is confident in the future of English at Michigan.
"I do think the future of literature will always still be here,” said Anders.