The humanities are shrinking, but not dying

A BYU student pauses for a moment in the Education in Zion exhibit, located in the Joseph F. Smith Building on campus. The 290,000 square-foot building houses the College of Humanities. (Emma Everett)

The 2010s saw a decline in humanities enrollments across the country. Now, in a post-pandemic world, there’s potential for a boost, according to BYU College of Humanities Assistant Dean Sherami Jara.

General university enrollment numbers are often causally linked to the economy’s health, Jara said.

Additionally, according to Jara, strong economies inspire students to drop out of school for high-paying entry-level jobs. However, tougher economic times send people back to the classroom for a degree that will give them a competitive edge in the job market.

“When we hit a recession, suddenly people come back to school,” Jara said.

What they choose to study upon their return is a different story. Brian Jackson, a professor in the BYU English Department, has seen financial recessions deter students from pursuing the humanities.

“There’s been a decline in English majors since the mortgage lending crisis in 2009. The last decade, we’ve seen about a 40% decline,” he said.

Other Utah universities have reported similar patterns. Utah State University has had a 44% decline in enrollment in the humanities, art and social sciences department from 2014 to now.

Utah Valley University has also experienced humanities drops, even as their general enrollment soars. 

In 2018, 13.5% of UVU’s student population were in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. As of fall 2022, UVU had 43,042 students with declared majors, only 12.2% of which were humanities and social sciences students.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw an initial dip in enrollment numbers across all departments at BYU, but Jara said the past few semesters have seen a small resurgence in the humanities. 

Jara is hopeful that this economic slump will not be as detrimental to the college because people’s attitudes toward the humanities have shifted, she said.

A decade ago, national media lauded science, technology, engineering and math programs and presented the humanities as a financially unwise academic hobbyism, Jara said.

“Ten years ago, people said it was bad to major in humanities,” she said. “The narrative has changed. More people understand its value now.”

However, ideas about marketability still influence the educator and student approach to humanities study. Program enrollment numbers at USU suggest students gravitate toward programs that provide them with hard skills easily transferable to the job market.

For example, enrollment numbers for English, languages, communication studies and philosophy programs are declining at USU. Enrollment in sociology, social work, anthropology and journalism is on the rise.

Universities have taken note. UVU College of Humanities and Social Sciences administrative employee Brandon Springer said they have started bringing successful humanities alumni to campus “to help students understand the vision of what they can do.”

At BYU, administrators created the Humanities+ program, which orients students toward future success in the workplace. 

“We want to help students … be intentional and interact with opportunities that will help build competencies and skills,” Jara said.

This initiative looks like academic planning, seeking out internship opportunities and partnering with the Marriott School for business and humanities collaboration. The college’s advisement center often recommends humanities majors select a minor that will give them some practical skills.

According to Jara, humanities graduates are effective communicators, information literate and culturally fluent. These competencies are valuable to potential employers.

The key, she said, is to help them sell it.

“Advisors help students learn how to articulate their experience … Over time, they’re out-earning a lot of their peers because they possess this competency set,” Jara said.

Despite technological advancements threatening to edge people out of a job, Jackson said he thinks these competencies will continue to be relevant.

“If the market continues to need effective communicators — people with critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence and ability — then we’re going to need humanities majors,” he said.

Jackson is realistic about the impact technology, specifically OpenAI’s ChatGPT, will have on the humanities. In his view, many of the pragmatic, hard skills the department teaches will lose relevance. 

He said he anticipates the rise of prompt engineers, who will need a solid grasp of communication to be effective. They will work with ChatGPT to produce text across a variety of disciplines.

Jackson heads a task force within the College of Humanities which is exploring how ChatGPT can be integrated into the classroom.

“There is some disagreement about the degree to which we should automate the learning process, but I have only experienced openness to discussion,” he said.

The task force’s report encourages educators to favor “context over content,” “process over product” and “writers over writing.” By engaging with new technologies while continuing to emphasize student development, the college will prepare graduates for an ever-evolving market.

Task force member and BYU professor of digital humanities Brian Croxall described the College of Humanities’ approach as “fairly forward-thinking.” He said ChatGPT can be a helpful resource in the writing process, not unlike spell check or services like Grammarly.

Croxall predicted there will be less market demand for content creators and other writing jobs, but that new technology has not eliminated the need for humans altogether.

“Anything that uses written text — and that includes code — can be touched by this,” he said. “In the long run, most businesses need someone with humanities skills, even if they don’t realize it.”

Senior English major Sydney Zundel said she sees the value of her humanities degree, even though it has left some question marks in her future plans. She spoke about her experience at the BYU English Symposium a month ago.

“A lot of other majors, like STEM majors, lead really well into future careers and jobs. It’s a little different for the humanities,” she said. “You may not be fed directly into the workforce. The things you learn in the humanities are so broad and varied.”

Zundel said she would ultimately like to write children’s books about the Native American experience. In her immediate future, she said she does not know what she is going to do to get there.

Senior Erika Kohler said she decided to pursue German teaching after a positive teaching experience in one of BYU’s lower-level language classes. Kohler learned German while living abroad as a high schooler and serving a mission in Berlin.

She said she views the humanities as an opportunity to connect to other people and the world, especially in the context of world languages.

“It’s a springboard for a lot of other disciplines because you understand what’s going on around you,” she said.

Kohler said she has seen her German studies classmates grapple with uncertainties as they approach graduation. Many of them consider graduate school because their career paths feel unclear without it.

It is important to acknowledge that many humanities students do not pursue traditional humanities careers post-graduation. For example, 39% of BYU’s French and Italian department alumni are working in the finance, marketing, media and communications sectors. An almost equally significant portion have careers in business management.

Sherami Jara, assistant dean in the College of Humanities and a BYU English alumna herself, shares why she believes the humanities are valuable. She said she appreciates BYU’s encouragement of humanities. (Emma Everett)

For Jara, this is evidence that with a humanities degree, “you can do anything.” This fact can be both liberating and intimidating, she said.

Ultimately, she said she believes that BYU is a sanctuary for humanities study. While other universities cut their humanities programs, BYU bolsters them.

“Regardless of what everyone else is talking about, BYU as an institution will always support the humanities,” she said. “The humanities will always have a strong and important presence on campus.”

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