Fall of humanities may mean rise of mixed education

With more universities moulding the humanities with business and STEM, many students may no longer have to decide between education for the sake of knowledge and education for job security.

Over recent years, the declining interest in humanities degrees hasn’t changed, nor is it changing anytime soon, according to data from Statistics Canada.

Many universities are responding to this continual decline by evolving their approach towards permanent changes over temporary ones. According to an article in The Globe and Mail, this means “combining philosophy or history with commerce” or increasing availability of co-op opportunities to humanities students that have historically been more available to students in engineering or business.

A large factor in the rising disinterest for humanities programs is in the attitudes surrounding them. Over the years, studying humanities has become entirely divided from business or STEM fields by the ideas associated with them — the idea that the humanities are about becoming a better, more knowledgeable individual and that other fields centre around getting a secure and lucrative job.

This is an oversimplified version of reality. While we look at people who pursue the humanities and the arts as pursuing their passion, science and math can and do inspire passion as well. In fact, many students within these programs may feel just as unsure about their futures as someone majoring in English or history, but are pursuing the subject they love.

This generalized dichotomy of humanities vs. everything else does a disservice to the complexity of each side and enforces an one-or-the-other decision on students entering university. These ideas are reiterated in the form of major news headlines — “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” in The New York Times, for instance — and perpetuated in the minds of confused students.

If we’re being constantly fed the idea that the humanities are dying, even if they are, many students may become further alienated from the idea of pursuing the humanities. It might even be an example of a cause and effect question — what came first, the headline about the death of humanities or the death of humanities itself?

Incorporating traditionally opposite subjects, like business into and humanities programs such as English or philosophy will take getting used to.

Sometimes, combining disciplines can skew their teaching, diluting the essentials while missing the subtleties it would take more time to study. That would end us with less education for education’s sake and more education for security’s sake.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

With such a deeply rooted divide between the humanities and business or STEM fields, finding ways that the two can meet enables students to explore both, in a system that doesn’t often allow it.

For instance, the new Arts & Science Personal Interest Credit allows ArtSci students to take a pass/fail credit outside their program — it gives them an opportunity to look beyond the confines of their degree and perhaps dabble in something that’s often set apart from their discipline.

This meeting of disciplines also makes university education more accessible to those who can’t afford to study for the sake of learning. For many students, particularly those from immigrant families or low-income families, the decision to attend university comes with the requirement of leaving with a certain level of job security.

By blurring the lines, many of these students could study what they love while also having some peace of mind that their money isn’t going to waste.

As universities change to accept that the humanities will continue to falter, a larger change may be taking place — education for education’s sake may be changing to include education for peace of mind.

There’s room for the humanities in that peace of mind.

— Journal Editorial Board

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