Column | Nov. 14

The humanities debate

There has been a trend in the past four decades of University students shying away from the humanities in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The world is becoming increasingly technology-centric. Technical skills are therefore increasingly important, and more people should be interested in pursuing those skills — even in the social sciences, statistics has become absolutely required. Where did the rigorous and serious field of computer science come from? Departments such as math, statistics and physics. To have innovation, technical studies require the engagement of the academy.

Technical skills can lead to a certain set of in-demand jobs. According to information provided by The Wall Street Journal based on census data, high-paying jobs, including those on Wall Street, go to students who graduate in economics and other technical fields. Economics itself has splintered in various forms — Princeton alone has economics, economics with a math bent, Operations Research and Financial Engineering, a certificate in “finance” (which is the number one certificate by popularity) and a Woodrow Wilson financial policy track. It makes sense that there would be a splintering and expansion of financial fields. The economy is growing, becoming more complicated, and there are more specific and specialized skills necessary to operate within that economy. The tools to deal with an increasingly complicated system should be increasingly focused.

If students are gravitating toward certain fields, they are necessarily leaving other fields. At the same time that more people are going into finance, fewer are going into the humanities. I believe that this should be of concern, though it is not unexpected and not necessarily bad. It is possible, in the same breath, to bemoan loudly the decline of cultural literacy and understand the increase in utility-centric academic pursuits.

One of the primary reasons to be concerned that fewer students are being educated in the humanities is that America seems to be slowly losing its ties to high culture. I am, however, not convinced that the decline in humanities majors is necessarily to blame. The beautiful tradition of Western scholarship is important, but the form of culture-consumption changes — there are trends over time. Aristotle wrote dialogues, but we don’t have all of them; they disappeared as things do when they are not intentionally preserved. It is somewhat fashionable to lament the death of the opera — more fashionable, in fact, than going to the opera. I personally appreciate the medium but understand that it is not particularly popular right now. Change is not inherently a normative bad. Works of enduring worth will endure. Homer’s “Odyssey” and the Bible still grace most high school curricula, as they should and as they might continue to do.

It is hard for me to admit that I am not mourning the decrease of humanities majors. I take my rounded education here very seriously, though I am not upset that I do not have to take Greek, Latin and Biblical Hebrew, as I would have if I came here decades or centuries ago. That academic pursuit fizzled to make way for what I consider to be more valuable: our distribution requirements, freshman writing requirements, etc. Even engineering students at Princeton have to take classes in Epistemology and Cognition and Literature and the Arts. But if time changes the Princeton student’s consumption of information, so be it.

Forms of this debate have appeared in many places, including The New York Times. Lamenting the requests he gets to donate his writing, author Tim Kreider wrote in his Oct. 26 column that: “My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great…” Point well taken; getting paid money is an important part of working, and the expectation that writers are not due the same respect is unfair. But there is a clear difference between Kreider and his sister. Both of them, I’m sure, are good at their respective jobs, but there is a certain element of technical expertise that separates him from his sister.

Those who work in finance these days have a technical know-how that is new, growing and developing. The field is becoming more demanding and more specialized. Perhaps it makes sense that as the field expands and becomes more complicated, more students should pursue an understanding of it. That humanities are suffering is, of course, sad, but so the trends go: the more technical the world becomes, the more technicians are necessary. Culture and the Western scholarly tradition are perhaps changing, but surely not dying.

Aaron Applbaum is a Wilson School major from Oakland, Calif. He can be reached at applbaum@princeton.edu.

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