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Will the Humanities Survive?

The need to prepare students for college or career has become a mantra, but I maintain that empirical evidence reveals nuances given short shrift.

According to a new report, Harvard University, long considered the most prestigious of this country's institutions of higher learning, is attracting fewer undergraduates for its humanities division because the value of a degree in the field is questionable in today's job market ("Humanities Fall From Favor," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 6). Humanities majors there have fallen from 36 percent in 1954 to 20 percent in 2012.

Harvard is not alone. Across the country, 7 percent of college graduates majored in the humanities in 2010, compared with 14 percent in 1966. The unemployment rate broken down by majors is most likely responsible. For example, nationwide it was 9.8 percent for English majors, compared with 5.8 percent for chemistry majors.

The usual rebuttal offered in defense of the humanities is that they were never supposed to be a career-service major. They were intended primarily to prepare students to think critically. This ability is said to be the best possible assurance of finding and keeping a well-paying job. There is much truth to these claims. However, the cost of a bachelor's degree now is prohibitive for all but the most affluent families. As a result, neither parents nor students can be faulted for seeking a pecuniary pay-off after graduation. Let's not forget that student debt cannot be discharged during bankruptcy.

If these anxieties eat at students at even the most selective colleges, they most certainly are on the minds of students in high school. This is particularly the case for boys. "They want better jobs than their fathers have, but their attitudes toward school and work are misaligned with the opportunities and requirements in today's labor market" ("Bridging the male education gap," Los Angeles Times, Jun. 11).

That's why I've long urged that vocational education be accorded far greater respect. Instead, we counsel students to get a well-rounded, four-year education because college graduates earn more over a lifetime than high school graduates. However, this is a generalization that says nothing about the major, nor does it take into account the interests and aptitudes of students. I'd like to see the average annual income of humanities majors compared with that of plumbers, electricians and auto mechanics. I bet the results would be startling. What's wrong with apprenticeships and certificate programs that provide students with a well-paying career and personal satisfaction?

The accusation that placing students in vocational programs is racist because a larger percentage of poor students of color happen to be enrolled is ironic. I say that since these students often stand a better chance of finding and holding highly desirable jobs than students in academic programs who happen to be white. I suggest looking to Germany as a model. Its dual system of company and school training motivates students by demonstrating how their studies will pay off.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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